Americans are often told that we are the world’s freest people—and our government claims to be on a crusade to extend that freedom to nations afflicted by “evil” regimes. Freedom is an inspiring ideal, but in the real world it’s a matter of choices—where to live, how to love, whom to vote for. And even in America, choices get tangled up in problems. Why does limitless consumer choice end up exhausting us? What does it mean that many things that used to be facts of life—from sexuality to religion—are choices today? And where’s the balance between the unchosen realities that anchor us (race, geography, history) and choices that liberate us?—The Editors
Americans today are the guinea pigs in one of the world’s boldest social experiments. For the first time in history “the freedom to choose” has become a national ideal—and rallying cry—overriding nearly all other values grounded in moral, religious, or ethnic traditions. Middle-class Americans born since World War II enjoy a range of possibilities that earlier generations couldn’t have dreamed of. I know that having choices is supposed to be a good thing. Certainly it’s an indication of living in comfort rather than poverty. But I, for one, am feeling a little overwhelmed.
I’m a pretty calm sort, and I try to make choices in an informed, deliberate way. But from simple decisions at the hardware store to bigger life questions, I’m often reeling from the sheer volume of options I face each day. In fact, many people I know are caught in a similar love/hate relationship with choices—reveling in all the opportunities available, but also feeling downright oppressed by them.
Our choices seem especially fraught with anxiety now as the clothes, schools, jobs, food, homes, and cars we select are more than ever declarations of who we are. You are not just buying shoes or wine or gifts for the kids; with each decision you are constructing an identity for all the world to see and judge you by. This raises the pressure on making the right decision. You may feel increasingly frustrated by how little time you have to sort through all the options. You may continually question whether you’ve made the best decisions. Knowing what you really want can sometimes seem impossible.
Even taking all this into account, it’s still easy for me to blame myself for having a hard time making up my mind. The inability to act decisively, after all, has always been seen in American culture as a sign of moral weakness, poor character, or just plain wishy-washyness. But through the years I have learned that if I take one step back from my anxiety about making decisions, I find there’s something bigger than my own inadequacies at play. While personally I might fear making the wrong choice, being incorrectly stereotyped, or missing out on one thing if I choose another, larger questions loom. If everyone is increasingly consumed by a barrage of choices (multiply “paper or plastic” by 100), who has a clear enough mind and sufficient blocks of time to consider the important issues that affect us all? I doubt that I am the only person, in this war-filled, malnourished world who feels a sense of moral quandary upon finding myself in a ridiculously overstuffed cereal aisle at the supermarket.
Margaret Mead warned 75 years ago in her anthropological classic Coming of Age in Samoa that “a society which is clamoring for choice, which is filled with many articulate groups, each urging its own brand of salvation, its own variety of economic philosophy, will give each new generation no peace until all have chosen or gone under, unable to bear the condition of choice. The stress is in our civilization.”
Think how common it is to feel lost these days, wondering if you’re making the right purchases, living in the right place, hanging out with the right people, and doing the right work. You can see further signs of confusion in the news every day. Most of the discussion about issues like the economy, environmental protection, social justice, and homeland security end up as questions about choice: How do we expand our options? When do we set limits? Who has been left out of the decision making? These questions, of course, play a pivotal role in international affairs, setting our policies in Iraq, North Korea, Palestine, and Israel, among other places.
Whether we’re aware of it or not, these large concerns are likely affecting our personal abilities to make simple choices. If you find that you are frequently changing your mind these days, or endlessly postponing making decisions in order to seek more information, it may help to remember that such anxiety may come from cultural, rather than our personal, bewilderment over the role of choice in our lives.
Or it may be because of fear.
With September 11, a steep economic downturn, bioterrorism threats, a steady stream of government security warnings, the possibility of successive wars, and growing international hatred for the United States, the new century has ushered in an Age of Fear, observes Phillip Moffitt in Yoga Journal (March/April 2003).
“Living in a fear-based culture inevitably affects your state of mind and the decisions you make,” Moffitt writes. “As a citizen you may become more compliant, more willing to surrender your rights for vague promises of safety. As an employee you are less demanding, less willing to take risks. And in your personal life you are more security oriented, and thus less open to new possibilities.” When not acknowledged, he continues, “fear narrows your vision, shuts down intuition as well as common-sense reflection, and promotes violent actions.” To help us sort out the reasons behind our choices, Moffitt calls on us to recognize fear as “a phenomenon that is predominant in this particular moment, not the ultimate decision maker in your life.”
We live in complicated times, where it’s hard to tell whether our anxiety comes from inside or out. It’s difficult to make clear, meaningful decisions when the world is in a state of huge flux. Fundamentalism—Christian, Islamic, Jewish, Hindu—and its accompanying codes of strict behavior and enforced decision making, is one response to such ever-changing conditions. But psychologist Robert Jay Lifton has been saying for years that there’s another, opposite, reaction that is underway all around us.
Lifton, who made a name for himself studying the psychological condition of Hiroshima survivors, claims that human beings are in a state of transformation, entering a new mode of being that will help us navigate this world of multiple choice. Rather than seeing ourselves as “unsteady, neurotic, or worse” in a world that seems inconstant and unpredictable, “We are becoming fluid and many sided. . . . This mode of being differs radically from that of the past, and enables us to engage in continuous exploration and personal experiment,” he wrote in The Protean Self (Basic, 1993).
Embodying only one aspect of your self when making decisions—as a successful business person, say, but not the role as daughter of a working-class family, or resident of a community afflicted by poverty or pollution—may make decisions more cut and dried, but will not address one’s underlying struggles and anxieties. Embracing one’s multiple sides often takes more time, but it is a more honest and ultimately more valuable way to make important choices. Decisions may come with less certainty, but more connection to life and humanity.
Lifton named this new mode of being the “protean self” based on the shape-shifting Greek sea god Proteus. The story goes that if you could hold onto Proteus long enough as he went through his changing forms—from lion, to dragon, to tree—he would eventually tell you all that you need to know. Lifton sees such evolution as a positive sign of human resilience. “My conviction is that certain manifestations of proteanism are not only desirable but necessary for the human future,” he writes.
This way of thinking has inspired me. I’m planning to call on Proteus the next time I’m feeling anxious when faced with a choice, large or small. I’m not quite sure how it will work yet, but I’m hoping that I’ll be able to watch myself as I go through questions and contortions, considering my choices, and the potential ramifications of my decisions, from many points of view, paying particular attention to identifying pressures coming from outside myself. I’m hoping that instead of choosing a familiar route, I’ll be more flexible and more patient as I take the time to sift through my options until my body tells me what I need to know to make a good—and less anxiety-ridden—decision.
Karen Olson is a senior editor at Utne.