The Unbearable Lightness of Choosing

Talking about choice is, for most of us, a special way of talking about freedom. And freedom, the bedrock American idea, is very much on our minds these days.

Our president insists that terrorists and other enemies wish us ill because of their blind hatred of freedom. We are told–and not for the first time in our history–that the only way to safeguard our freedom is to give up substantial portions of it. No doubt about it–engaging with the meanings of freedom is complicated work.

While choice is intimately bound up with freedom, it is a far more earthbound idea. Freedom is a shared value; choice is an individual, personal, often private act. We pick this college, that job, this lover or that one; this city to live in or . . . another. Or 50 others.

For most of history, and most people around the world today, the important things in life have been matters not of choice but of participation. You were born a Catholic or a Hindu; a member of a caste or a class. Even the calendar–a succession of commemorations and annual prompts to do this or that collective task–whittled down the number of choices in your life.

Then a handful of societies, notably Western Europe in the late middle ages and Japan in the 17th century, developed a sizeable merchant class, thus fostering the leisure and wealth that allowed people to explore a range of personal options. This luxury eventually spread out from the aristocracies of those cultures into a larger, if still limited, part of the ordinary population. Contemporary America, in many ways, is the climax of this movement of expanding opportunities. Choice is paraded before our eyes in a thousand ways every day. The dominant form is, of course, consumer choice: the dizzying array of stuff set out for our inspection in all media, all the time. Consumer choice provides the chief metaphor and model for our decision-making in every endeavor from elections to romance. It can be overwhelming–a perfect instance of too much choice and trivial choices feeling like no choice at all. (Yet for many of us, especially the poor, consumer choice stands as a powerful symbol, not simply of the so-called “good life,” but of power itself, and thus of autonomy and dignity.)

American individualism is built on the conviction that our number of choices ought always to be expanding–and any realm of life where we do not get to make personal choices is, by definition, oppressive. Even one’s sex, seemingly one of the most inalterable facts of life, can now be a matter of choice with the help of surgery, hormone treatments, and the rise of transsexual consciousness.

All the rhetoric about how the growth of choice has liberated us raises skepticism in some–like English philosopher John Gray, who thinks that much of our “choicefulness” is simply an illusion we foist upon ourselves to cope with the dislocations of a rapidly changing world. “We are not authors of our lives,” writes Gray in his recent book Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals. “We are not even part-authors of the events that mark us most deeply. Nearly everything that is most important in our lives is unchosen. The time and place we are born, our parents, the first language we speak–these are chance, not choice. It is the casual drift of things that shapes our most fateful relationships. . . . Yet we have been thrown into a time in which everything is provisional. New technologies alter our lives daily. The traditions of the past cannot be retrieved. At the same time, we have little idea of what the future will bring. We are forced to live as if we were free.”

It’s hard for an American to read those words without protesting. Surely our freedom of choice is not a mere illusion produced by rootlessness and unpredictability in our lives. Some of the most radical choices we are able to make represent searches for personal truth. A woman who has always felt “wrong” in her female body and who undergoes the trauma, expense, and risk of becoming a male is not serving an illusion or making a trivial “lifestyle” choice. She is making a difficult move toward a truth to which she believes she cannot say no. At bottom, she is a man, and she is simply adjusting herself physically to embody that fact.

Exercising our right to make choices is a profoundly two-sided experience. It is a groping after deep, unchosen truths about ourselves at the same time as being a symbol of our freedom to do something about them. That personal groping is necessary because so many of the stabilizing external supports for our inner selves–like the unquestioning acceptance of a religion, a social role, or a destiny–are gone. The role of mother, for example, one of the most profound responsibilities anyone can take on, was a “natural” consequence of marriage for most women a few generations ago. Today it is a choice, at least in Western societies; and balancing whatever “natural” urges women have toward childbirth and nurture with other equally legitimate needs and desires, from a business career to an artistic life, has become one of the great personal dilemmas of our time. To resolve questions like this, where else can we go but inward to find, then choose, new (or old) truths?

As the realm of choice penetrates deeper into our lives, closer to the core of our identity, the stakes grow higher. We seem to risk more if we make bad choices. Limits on our choice begin to feel like limits on our humanity, not inevitable elements of being human. We become, in a way, less free, and certainly more anxious. In John Gray’s words: “The cult of choice reflects the fact that we must improvise our lives. That we cannot do otherwise is a mark of our unfreedom.”

But what about those whose choices are drastically limited? It’s often said that choice is a high-class problem, a dilemma of the privileged, and, as such, not terribly compelling for those concerned with justice. I believe this assertion needs to be examined. The point is that to naively equate more choice with more freedom is to buy into the consumer paradigm–and into right-wing political dogma, which elevates personal choice as the be-all and end-all of political and social freedom. Even if we’re not as completely at the mercy of chance as John Gray suggests, our lives at all levels have areas of both freedom and constraint, and we live between the stabilizing tug of what we did not have to choose and the freeing promise of what we wish to choose.

Most people naturally assume that the poor wish to escape and forget their troubled neighborhoods. Many do; but the powerful loyalty an East L.A. kid feels for his barrio, or working-class white or black Americans may feel for their families and neighborhoods, testify to the paradoxical truth that we find our humanity, and even our freedom, in many places–including our bonds to people or a place we never chose.

At the same time, those of us with fewer choices suffer particularly poignantly in a culture that promotes “choicefulness” into a cure-all, and even a sign of virtue. The major theme of contemporary conservative politics is preserving individual choice, especially from alleged attacks by liberals–whose main sin is their conviction that society should help people born into poverty (and a sense of choicelessness) in the very same way that family and business networks help those born into money (and a sense of entitlement).

But to label the poor as absolutely without choices is to dehumanize them. The great issues of choice in life–choosing a life partner, coming out of the closet, finding a faith, resonate up and down the social scale, and to deny it is to turn the poor into mere victims.

Being surrounded by the rhetoric of choice makes it all the more important to understand what role it plays and does not play in our lives. Recent scientific research sheds some light on the matter, suggesting that we are “hard-wired” for violence, or altruism, or nurture, and/or several of the other traditional moral and ethical choices. Here’s empirical evidence that at least some things are stable in our existence, which has an undeniable attraction–if true. But it’s not that easy, because we instinctively know that so much of who we are is not a mere given–and even if we are hard-wired for this or that trait, we still treat one another as free agents, with choices. And that’s a cultural fact that won’t go away soon.

The idea that homosexuality is not a choice–that it is in some sense “hard-wired”–is a major tenet of much gay liberation theory, a counter to the conservative view that gayness is “mere” choice of lifestyle. But, of course, for conservatives the choices of the marketplace (big suburban house, gas-guzzling car, luxury goods) are reasonable, even sacred, while deeper and more self-defining choices (to change one’s sex, to come out of the closet, to leave a failing marriage) represent irresponsible behavior that ought to be curtailed in defense of “the family” or some other supposedly changeless traditional entity. But some gay groups like Queer By Choice are unwilling to abandon the flag of choice that has flown over so much liberationist thinking in our time, unwilling to give the field over to determinism. On their Web site, they insist that gay people (and all other people) can choose even their emotions.

Freedom of choice as we view it in America liberates and defines us, but it also has a tendency to isolate us–to emphasize the individual act of choosing and its consequences for us as separate from a broader landscape of relationships and connections. But choosing right–the right partner, the right path, the right faith, even the right product–is hardest when we feel most isolated. We feel isolated when we are reduced to homo economicus (“economic man”), that pure subject of market research and libertarian politics, left to our own inadequate devices to do the right thing–pick the healthiest food, the safest car, the right school for our kids, the best president. The sheer volume of information, pseudo-information, and persuasion directed at us when we are in homo economicus mode is simply intolerable.

Suppose we run for cover from this blitz into the personal realm and concentrate our energies on things that really matter to us: home, job, family, our destiny as spiritual beings, our future as humans. Here we may feel even more profoundly alone; at least the persuasion industries remind us that we belong to demographic segments; but when we make these deeper “existential” choices, our happiness, our very life, may seem to be at stake.

“The single most important decision any of [us] will ever make,” said Albert Einstein, “is whether or not to believe the universe is friendly.” Deciding that the universe is friendly is the most important decision we can make toward ensuring that we can make our choices in freedom and even joy. An old friend of mine, a long-sober recovering alcoholic who’d had his share of falls from grace and knocks on the head, once said to me that whenever he had a choice to make, he weighed the pros and cons seriously, but not too long; then he simply chose, and he gave up all second thoughts and second-guesses. “That’s because my choices make up my life, not some perfect life,” he said. He was content to lead his life, with twists and turns that no one else might make, creating a pattern that belonged to him. He could have confidence in this pattern because he believed that the universe was friendly, that other people were real, and that he was deeply connected to many others. He could not, ultimately, “lose” by making the “wrong” decision because every decision would lead him somewhere he needed to go–to someone he could help, to some situation he could make better, to some need he could fill.

This suggests to me that freedom of choice depends upon our connectedness with one another if it is not to become poisonous. It’s why mere freedom of choice as modern conservatives define it, which includes proud separation from the suffering of the weak and the wounded, always seems to lead to gated communities and surveillance cameras. It’s why a defense of our “free” way of life that turns non-Americans into pawns or statistics or “acceptable” casualties–no matter how “realistic” it may seem–always leads to terror, in every sense of the word. Gestures of friendship, on the other hand–the Marshall Plan, cultural exchanges of all sorts–cement alliances for generations and create a safer world.

Until our universe and our world really are genuinely friendly for all (may it come to pass), my friend’s determination to see friends everywhere will have to do. It is, to my way of thinking, really a determination to make friends. And in a world full of friends, the only bad choice you can make is to turn away from them.

Jon Spayde is a senior editor at Utne.

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