Part 3: The Dangers of Choice
When we exercise our power of choice we turn from passive objects thrown about by the forces of the outside world into active agents shaping those forces as much as being shaped by them. Making deliberate choices can give us a sense of empowerment and control but it can also be daunting. In the complex, unpredictable and ever-shifting world we live in it is easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of choices we must make and the impossibility of getting all of them right.
It seems that the more aware we are and consciously consider every interaction we have with the world, the more our choices multiply. Even the simplest of things, like what to have for breakfast or when to go bed in the evening, could, if we’re not careful, be the source of endless deliberation and hesitation. From a rational perspective there are very few choices that have one clear best option. In most cases the number of variables involved quickly make a detailed comparison between the available choices impossible. Even if we could compare them one by one it’s more than likely that we would find that the pros and cons between options balance each other out, each option having a different mix of plusses and minuses, but no clear advantage to make them stand out as our preferred choice.
On the other hand, even when we are being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of our trivial choices, it can at the same time appear as if we have no real choice at all where the big issues of our lives are concerned. We can’t change the facts of our genes, our family and ancestry, our country of birth, the time we live in, the systems we have to conform to if we want to participate in society, the laws of man and nature, … so many outside factors seem to define and constrain us that it would be easy to conclude we only really have choices where they matter least. A growing awareness of our expectations and increasing clarity of our narratives can lead us into feeling lost between having too many small things to choose between and lacking the power to choose a different path than destiny seems to have prepared for us. We could become like prisoners on our way to our execution, unable to change the inevitable end but all the while worrying whether our choice of shoes was appropriate for the occasion.
Even if we manage to steer safely between the rock of powerlessness and the hard place of being overwhelmed by choice, and manage to find the choices that matter and are clear enough to make, we still face that heaviest of downsides of choice: the burden of responsibility. When we make deliberate choices we assume responsibility for their outcomes as well as their consequences, even when some of those consequences were unintended or unexpected. When, by choosing, we change something, however small, in the course of the world, that change is our doing, and we cannot protest our innocence in bringing it about. We made that choice; we have to live with the consequences. That burden of responsibility is not something to take lightly and can become a major obstacle on our path towards living our best possible lives and consciously traveling the path of our own design.
Caught between powerlessness and an inability to choose, and burdened by responsibility, we could wonder whether trying to live a conscious and deliberate life is really such a great idea. Maybe the simple souls that unthinkingly follow the rules and dictates of their destiny are better off than we are, in our endless struggles? Maybe it is better to let the big choices be made by others, making the little choices without much thinking, not having to feel responsible for any of it as we are simply too small to matter at all?
Maybe not. After all, choosing not to choose is just as much a choice we make. we can’t actually escape responsibility by sitting still and letting things happen. If bad things happen, things we could have prevented had we taken action, those bad things are (at least for a part) on us. Inaction does not save us from the burden of responsibility, nor does it prevent us from making the wrong choices, as inaction itself can be just such a wrong choice.
Let us, therefore, accept that making choices is part of the human condition. Let us also accept that we can never expect to make perfect choices. There is no place for perfection in a messy, imperfect world. Each and every choice is always at best an approximation of the ideal that lives in our imagination only. The art of making choices lies in making them as deliberate and considerate as we can, observe their outcomes and consequences, and learn from that: adjust our beliefs and assumptions based on what we cause and see caused as we walk our path, so our future choices will be progressively more in tune with the journey we are on.
To end this section on a positive note, here are 4 things to use when doubting our ability to choose:
- When we are overwhelmed by the number of choices we have to make: rigorously prioritise them.If we could do only one thing at this moment, and nothing else, what would that be? By weighing each choice for the impact it has on our narrative and journey we can find the one that is most relevant right now and focus on that.
- When we feel we have no choices in what really matters: broaden our perspective.When it seems that the major obstacles in our lives are beyond our power to change, we may simply be looking too closely at those obstacles. A wider perspective – which also means removing ourselves emotionally and cultivating an attitude of detachment – will help us find choices that matter rather than getting stuck trying to force issues where we actually have little or no choice.
- When we know what we should do, but the prospect is too daunting, too big, too seemingly risky for us feel ready to make that choice: break it down into smaller steps.Remember that even the longest journeys start with one small step. Breaking down the big, daunting choice into smaller components and considering each sub-choice on its own merit may help to find a first step that both doable and desirable and sets us on our way.
- When we’re not sure the choice we’re about to make is the right one: imagine its consequences.Though we will never get guarantees our choices are right, we can reduce our uncertainty by imagining how each choice would work out over time. We can create scenarios of the near future and sketch out the consequences of the choices we’re facing and evaluate the likelihood and desirability of those consequences in each scenario.