Freedom from choice

July 5th, 2011 § 5 comments

Disclaimers: First, I am a feminist. I do not in any way condone patriarchal structures that give women little voice, lesser pay and judge them on the quality of their derrières, rather than the content of their characters. As a woman, frankly, I don’t think it’s much of a question. I owe the fact that I’m in graduate school, unmarried, relatively financially stable (ahem, personal disclosures) to generations of women who fought hard for these realities. The least I can do is identify myself with them by declaring my own feminism, even if my struggles have shifted (and in many ways, they haven’t shifted that far, but that’s the stuff of another post.) Second disclaimer, another disclosure perhaps, I’ve recently started watching Mad Men, finally, slowly and without tremendous enthusiasm, but nonetheless with curiosity. I’m sure that something of Betty Draper’s confounding existence has seeped into these ramblings.

So, with that said, when faced with the kinds of impossible decisions adulthood brings, I sometimes find myself wondering what it would be like to live in a world in which someone else made decisions on my behalf.

Housewife cleaning a TV set with a feather-brush. From: Collectie Spaarnestad

Decision-making is a strange skill meted out only slowly as we gain the ability to consider our actions and exercise a capacity for wilfulness. We hone our ability to choose through missteps involving preteen fashion and underage drinking. All of this to eventually bring us to the moment, say at around age 17 or 18, when we realize that our life and decisions are our own. This is a great and exhilarating time. You rent your own apartment, hitchhike across the country, or even just refuse curfew. Whatever choices you start with, the world is suddenly one in which you can eat cookies for dinner and no one is there to tell you to be more sensible.  In this moment, the world opens up and each decision opens deliriously onto many different opportunities; if one doesn’t work out, you simply move on to the next choice.

Slowly, however, this cacophony of glittering choices takes a turn. One day, faced with a decision, you realize that making one choice will shut down possibilities, rather than opening them up: you have to choose a major, thereby closing down potential career paths as a linguist, zoologist, interior designer or architect. With each decision, you lose some mythical could-have-been version of your future self. These choices are difficult; with each you mourn the loss of an unwritten personal narrative. At the same time, though, your dedication to the choices you do make is steely; you remain convinced that whatever you decide you’re staying true to your passions, pursuing the most stable career path or are on your way to certain riches/happiness/upwardly-mobile-relationship-options, etc.

Sometime after you’ve made a few of these defining decisions, the ones that will form the rough shape of your life and determine some of its outcomes, though, there comes a different sort of choice. This is the choice at which you find yourself unable to convince yourself of the obvious superiority of one option over another, the choice that isn’t grounded in some moment of clarity and determination. Often in this kind of decision-making, there is no good option, and instead you’re forced to make a choice that you know will be disappointing at best or devastating at worst. When settling on a major you can imagine all the possible outcomes your choice will have, but with this other kind of decision, all you can see is the options that will close down as a result of your choice. For instance, maybe you’ve just been offered a promotion in a job you find incredibly fulfilling, but several months ago you also initiated a promising new relationship while visiting an aunt in an out of the way town in Michigan. Do you move in pursuit of the relationship? Or do you stay to follow the career path? You can’t know how either will work out and you know that no matter which choice you make, the path not taken will become the proverbial one that got away. Unfortunately, adulthood is riddled with such decisions, particularly in its early stages.

These are the kinds of decisions people like Jonah Lehrer tell you to approach with your stomach: there are simply too many variables for your brain to weigh the options rationally, no matter how meticulous your pros and cons list, so you should cede to instinct and go with your gut  (you can find video of a lengthy talk he did on the subject here). But, how can you base a decision on a stomach that does nothing but sink deeper with every impossible nuance of a confounding choice? It’s in these kinds of situations that I find myself wondering what it would be like to simply have someone tell me the choice I’m going to make, someone who would dictate my life to me, whether that be a parent or a partner, or even some deeply engrained sense of propriety.

I certainly don’t want to live the life of the stereotypical (perhaps mostly mythical) housewife of the 1950s, or even to celebrate such an existence, but I think the paralysis of her circumscribed existence has potentially only opened up into a different kind of paralysis, in which we stand, stumped, before an excess of possible futures, reluctant to shut down any one for fear of losing all of them. We’ve grown up being told we can be anything we want to be—girls especially can now look beyond the triad of secretary/nurse/teacher for professional opportunities and a woman’s primary goal in life need not entail finding a husband in want of a wife. This is an amazing thing, but how do we decide, really, and not just in neurological terms? How can one make those impossible decisions without a time-machine, or at least a functional crystal ball? How do we build a foundation for the future on fickle gut-instincts and contradictory emotional programming, some held over from our mothers’ model of femininity and some more recently embedded through a teenage-haze spent with Le Tigre and Joni?

But, then, to fail to choose is also a choice, to refuse to decide is to continue blundering on leaving as many doors open as possible. Only at some point, the exhilaration of all those choices ebbs into a kind of exhaustion. As one drags oneself and one’s youth into the end of a third decade and on into a forth, the niggling thought that one should do something with one’s life only gets more insistent, which invariably means ruthlessly making at least one of those difficult choices and seeing it through, no matter how many get away in the process. No matter how you decide, it’s entirely possible that you will still end up like Betty Draper, taking it out on the neighbour’s pigeons with a BB gun (still mid-first season, folks), but then, in the end, maybe that wouldn’t be the worst option…

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