Some find it liberating, others dread it. But choice is an inseparable part of life.
A sticker I saw with the slogan “How will you know it’s the right decision if you never make it?” got me thinking about choices, and the ease or difficulty we experience in making them.
We all subscribe to the idea of having choice in our lives. But for some, making a choice feels more like a prison sentence, where the jailers are a person’s doubts, fears and overriding uncertainty about things. They keep him dizzily swaying between one option and another, never sure about any of them.
“I am always of two minds,” one man told a psychologist. “Or three. Or four.” He described his difficulty with decision-making as “epic.” And when he did finally make a decision, the turmoil continued in his head with “incessant chatter. Did I do the right thing? Maybe I should have done this instead of that....” The psychologist’s advice was succinct and down-to-earth. And while her neurotic client was an extreme case, the average person in the modern world, faced with an increasing and increasingly bewildering array of choices in almost every sphere, might do well to internalize it.
As with so much else, the rule is to keep a sense of proportion. Thus the most important thing to remember is that except in very rare instances, our choices will not have major negative consequences. They won’t kill us, nor even do us much harm. Sometimes our choices will be successful ones; other times, they won’t. So what? That’s life.
Moreover, she added, ever seeking the “perfect” choice – the very best airline ticket or hotel room deal, the most efficient appliance, the best possible electronic gadget available – even the perfect life partner – is a prescription for driving oneself crazy.
What we should be looking for, the psychologist said, is the “good enough” option. Anyone who declares himself satisfied only and exclusively with the best dooms himself to way too much time and positive energy squandered in seeking that elusive goal. And even then – will it really be “the best”?
ANOTHER SELF-DECEPTIVE tactic is “keeping one’s options open” and, wherever possible, avoiding making a choice at all. On the face of it, this practice could sound rather sensible, since the moment a particular option is chosen, every other option is, by definition, nullified.
One cannot pass through several doors at the same time.
Many people who believe they are searching for “the perfect partner” employ this tactic of keeping their options open, moving from one candidate to the next on any pretext, persuading themselves that they are only refining their choices and will eventually end up with the ideal mate. The truth is, however, that keeping all choices available means ending up with nothing at all.
You could liken it to leaving two – or many – birds in the bush rather than having one bird in the hand. Or, to employ another metaphor, like sitting and watching others play a game. Since you aren’t participating, it’s certain that you can’t lose – but neither do you have any chance of winning. Playing it safe thus turns out to be an oxymoron: You have to get out there and join in the game, with all the risks involved.
I MADE aliya in an era when the requirements of everyday living were simpler than they are today. “Do you remember,” I asked a friend who’d come to dinner, “when there were only two types of washing-up liquid you could buy in Israel: Ama in a basic red plastic bottle and Ama in a basic blue plastic bottle? We laughed at the memory and reeled off a list of products among which choice, where it existed in the 1970s, was limited. It made shopping a lot easier, if less adventurous.
But then I recalled a talk with my brother prior to the enormous step of leaving England and moving, on my own, to this country. What did he think about my picking up and coming to Israel – was I making the right choice? I’ve never forgotten what he replied.
“If a person keeps second-guessing a decision he’s made, it will never be the right one. To move to Israel, or not? You need to decide – and then to make your decision the right one.”
This view seems obvious once expressed, but it was an eye-opener: No choice is necessarily right or wrong in itself. What can make it right or wrong is the person’s subsequent mental and emotional input to that choice.
CHILD PSYCHOLOGISTS recommend giving small children the illusion of choice – or rather, a real but limited choice – by presenting them with two pre-selected options.
As the mother of a two-year-old back in the ‘80s, I snatched at this advice after seeing my early-morning schedule – quick kindergarten drop-off, then rush to work – defeated by a small body planted firmly in front of the mirror, observing her reflection and declaring: “No, Mummy, red and yellow aren’t friends.” I learned to announce: “OK, today you can choose the blue pants and pink top, or the green skirt and yellow top.” And even if it ended up being the blue pants and the yellow top, that was fine.
Professionals say that because the lives of small children are filled with “don’ts,” things they aren’t allowed to do for health or safety reasons, it is very important for them to gain confidence by exerting control over some part of their lives – like the simple act of choosing between an apple and a banana.
CHOICE IMPLIES a measure of control, and deeply embedded in Jewish tradition is the idea that man has been granted freedom of choice (“See, I have set before you this day life and good, and death and evil....therefore choose life....” Deuteronomy 30:15-19). But, as world history has unfortunately shown, man’s readiness to choose acts of uttermost evil has resulted in devastating consequences.
The enormity of what was perpetrated in the Holocaust will perhaps never be encompassed. And in our region, wanton slaughter and abuse seem to be the order of the day.
Why, asks a friend of mine who specializes in questions to which there is no entirely adequate answer, doesn’t God – if there is a just God – step in to stem the cruelty and save the innocent? The compelling answer is that a world in which our behavior was predetermined and imposed from Above, where evil action with its terrible human toll was invariably thwarted, would be a very different world from the one we know. It would be a world where people were reduced to puppets whose strings were pulled in directions that had nothing to do with their own emotions and impulses. It would be a world without human choice – and, therefore, paradoxically, without morality; something we cannot envisage unless it were a return to the thoughtless innocence of Eden.
The conclusion is that since this world with its dismaying unjustness and vast inequality is the one we inhabit, it is up to us to make our way and find meaning in it. It’s not the most satisfactory of answers, but it will have to do.
We are left with the burden and the blessing of free choice, and with the choices that we make.