Spoiled for choice

It’s funny, seeing as how the work I’m doing is all about choice, that I’m critical of it. I just saw an ad for RSVP, an online dating service, and the theme of the ad was winnowing down preferences. “Must like dogs. Loves to cook.” Blah blah blah.

We’re spoiled for choice, and by choice. Before we could move across great distances at will or chat with strangers on the other side of the world, we had who we had, and that was about it. You grew up in your family, your town, your neighborhood, and you took the things you disliked with the things you liked. And because you didn’t have an option to get away, surround yourself with the safe and adored things of your heart’s desires — physical, political, imaginary, whatever — you had to learn how to cope.

I am forgetting how to cope.

I am a liminal child. Born between cultures, now living between two different ones, I grew up in the waning days of rotary phones and the era of air travel as a sign of sophistication. I remember sitting in the smoking section with my mom, that’s the kind of era I’m talking about. Problem people and problem issues could only be ignored so long before they had to be confronted.

There are two kinds of ingenuity: the kind that adapts, and the kind that escapes. Bruce Lee and Houdini. In the days before the super-granular preferences of subreddits and Facebook groups and whatnot, your options for avoidance of the unpleasant and adherence to the comfortable was limited; being Houdini was hard. So was being Bruce Lee, but you learned how to cope, how to adapt. I had to learn to cope and adapt. I had amazing friends who stuck with me, and I had really awful people in my life who reveled in watching me squirm. Here’s the thing: some of the former started as the latter. Because we had no escape, we had to find ways around ourselves, our own judgments, for the sake of our own continued coexistence.

Now I can count on one hand the people who I know and admire who think very differently from me, ideologically. And it’s a problem. If you don’t think so, then please see US Congress, Exhibit A. People toss around that quote — by Jefferson, or Franklin, one of the US founding fathers — that, paraphrased, says ideological disagreements don’t have to be friendship dealbreakers. Because we can learn from each other, we can learn from people who don’t see things the way we do. It’s why travelling is so important. But key to this exchange is respect. And when you can Houdini away, you don’t have to be the respectful but assertive Lee.

We must be responsible with our choices. We can’t put the tech genie back in the bottle, nor should we. It would be a waste. But what we do need to do is step up and take responsibility for ourselves, stray from the people and places we find comfortable, because it’s only through this kind of mindful confrontation that progress happens. Sometimes that progress is hard and painful, but often it’s meaningful and well worth the trouble.

To defeat the luxury of choice, we don’t eliminate choice: we just learn to decide better.

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