Choice: an act of selecting or making a decision when faced with two or more possibilities (Online Oxford Dictionary).
This morning I’ve been reading about doing one thing at a time and having too many choices. I’ve considered the paradox of choice: how important it is to understand our power to choose for ourselves and how unhealthy too many choices can be. I’ve thought about all the subtle ways I limit choice overload in my own life. For example, we have a large DVD collection. I like to watch my favorite movies and series over and over again, so I move through the shelves in alphabetical order when considering what I want to watch next. I do the same thing in our fiction library. My partner, on the other hand, likes to have as much choice as possible and can’t understand why I deliberately narrow the field in terms of entertainment or anything else.
It’s not mysterious. I do it because I don’t like the feeling of floundering around with too many choices. If I want to relax in front of a movie, I don’t want to have to endure an hour of deliberation first. I know I’m healthier and happier when I keep life simple. We know many people, faced with too many buying choices, walk away without buying anything. That’s me. I have a low tolerance for hassle and unnecessary complications.
Choosing is powerful, but there’s also a tricky, dark side of choice. When we’re compelled, addicted, manipulated or numbed, we become divorced from our ability to identify two or more possibilities and our power to choose. We’re asleep at the wheel of our own lives, abdicating both the struggle of choosing and owning the responsibility for our choices and their consequences. We stop learning. We become victims. We all know people like this. They protest their behavior is not their fault. They couldn’t help it. Somebody or something else made them do it. They refuse to be accountable.
According to the above definition, choice is an action. It’s something we do, which implies it can also be something we don’t do. Yet doing, not doing or refusing to choose are all choices. I had a boyfriend once who avoided choice. He wouldn’t say yes to going to the movies. He wouldn’t say no, either. I used to tell him refusing to choose was also a choice that resulted in steering my own choices, but he wouldn’t accept it. He focused his blame on me for the choices I made — in response to his.
The truth is we’re responsible for our behavior and decisions, whether they arise out of conscious choice or not.
Modern American culture does an interesting thing. Our rightful power to choose has become shackled to consumerism. If you want to have a healthier body, for example, a wide array of diet programs, supplements and exercise equipment, clothing and technology is available to you. Want to become more effective and organized? There’s an app for that! Want love and connection? Buy it with diamonds, perfume, makeup, a phone plan, an insurance policy or a car!
We follow blindly along with all this because we’re brainwashed by our media consumption and the overculture. Our choice to improve our physical self-care leads to economic choices, not behavioral changes, even though we all know a gym membership is not useful unless we actually go to the gym and change our behavior! We are seduced onto distracting avenues of endless shiny, tantalizing, seductive promises of exactly what we want, if only we buy the right things.
In the meantime, our lives wither, we become enslaved by money, and the only choice we can recognize is whether to buy brand A or brand B. Our brief flicker of power in deciding to take better care of ourselves is extinguished by guarantees, reviews, special deals, customer service and returns. We give our time and energy to sorting through glittering products, rather than doing the inner work of noticing our self-destructive behavior and learning to manage our choice making more effectively.
I wonder if the power to make free and conscious choices is not the most important thing we can learn — and teach. To be disconnected from our ability to say yes or no is to be enslaved. Enslavement is, of course, the goal of advertising and marketing. Corporations wouldn’t pour billions of dollars into advertising if it didn’t richly reward them. Controlling our buying choices is big business, and our economy rests on it.
Becoming more conscious of our non-consumer choices is perfectly possible, but it requires we wake up and pay attention. It requires a silent place in our lives for inquiry and reflection. It requires a step back from our busy, multi-tasking lives, distractions and deeply-rooted habits. We can’t make free choices if we’re unwilling to be wrong or afraid of unforeseen consequences. We can’t manage choice if we refuse to be honest with ourselves and others. Most of all, we must be willing to take responsibility if we want to manage choice effectively and appropriately.
No one can take away our power to choose unless we allow them to. In every circumstance we can choose something, even if it’s just refusing to be disempowered by difficult events and experiences. It’s never too late to claim our ability to choose, including limiting our exposure to marketing, advertising and algorithms and finding ways to avoid choice overload. Chocolate or vanilla is a lot easier to choose between than 31 flavors.
The holidays are here, and with them even more choices to make than usual. It’s a good time to stay awake, pay attention to what we’re doing and why, and exercise our right to choose what works best for us, even if it’s wildly different from anything we’ve ever done before. We don’t need anyone else’s permission to choose for ourselves, and nobody has the right to choose for us.
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