The Tyranny Of Choice

Many years ago, when I was a kid, I had a sweater.  It was red.  I know because when I look back at old school pictures I was wearing the same sweater three years in a row.  I wore it until you could see the white of my blouse showing through where the buttonholes stretched apart.  When my mother was cold she’d say, “Marilyn, put your sweater on.”  I knew exactly what she meant. We weren’t poor or anything like that.  It was just that in those days, a child only needed one sweater.  Today I don’t know how many sweaters I own. I have drawers full of them.  Let’s just say, I have enough to complicate my life. I have to choose which one goes with my mood, the occasion, the season, and the skirt, pants or dress I’m wearing.

We used to have a tiny closet within which to hang a coat, a few dresses or pants and shirts, enough to last until it was time to do the weekly laundry.  Now closets are as large as bedrooms used to be.

In the old days, I never went to the grocery store and came away feeling guilty about the kind of salad dressing I purchased.  I got the red one, the white one, or the clear one.   Now there are thirty kinds of low fat dressings from which to choose.  If I want the one with all the “bad” stuff, the one that says “original” on the label, I have to search for it, and consider, is it really worth the guilt trip?  What does it say about me if I go out of my way to find the one that’s bad for me?  I don’t know about you, but I sometimes feel intimidated by a tyranny of choice, and the not so subtle hints that I’m a bad person if I make a “bad” choice.

We have a lot of options about how to make, save, and spend our money.  But the days of choosing a career or a trade, getting a job with a good company and staying there for the duration of our work life are obsolete.  Technology changes so quickly that a trade or a profession learned in youth can only be expected to provide an income for twenty years or so.  The only sure thing is, we can no longer depend on pensions to provide a secure retirement.  It’s up to us to make good choices.  We have to make sure we don’t have too much life left at the end of our money.

There used to be a phone company.  Now, I can’t keep track of the number of phone companies trying to convince me they have a better package of options and plans to follow to get cheaper rates and better service.  If you fill out your own income tax forms or shop for health insurance, you know how confusing all those options can be.

I’m glad that career choices are no longer gender limited.  We used to have mailmen and stuardesses.  Now it’s mail carriers and flight attendants.  I like hearing a woman’s voice reporting the evening news, and male secretaries and nurses.  I look forward to having a female president.    I like the fact that men and women get to decide who’s going to be the stay at home parent.

Does the increased number of options free us to make better choices; or does it increase the pressure to make the right choice?

There are a lot of choices about routine health care.  Aspirin used to be the only headache remedy available at the local pharmacy.  Now we can choose one that fits our particular symptoms and body chemistry.   Many remedies no longer require a prescription.  Check out the different kinds of decongestants and antihistamines on the shelves.  It might take an hour or two out of your life to read all the labels, but we do have a choice.

In an effort to make sense of our options, and increase the potential for making good choices, we collect information from experts eager to sell us their products and services.   We get a constant stream of often unsolicited and contradictory advice.  Based on this information, we decide whether to takes herbs and vitamins or prescription drugs, whether to see our doctor, our chiropractor, our acupuncturist or our faith healer.  We decide whether to eat butter or margarine, drink red wine or grape juice, invest in individual stocks or mutual funds, take fertility drugs, steroids, and diet pills.  We decide how much exercise and what kind is best. We decide how to plan for retirement, and we feel guilty if we get sick or go broke because we made the wrong choices.  We even make our own life and death decisions; we can choose whether or not to avail ourselves, or our loved ones, to life support systems.

Not so many generations ago, our parents chose our spouses and we were stuck, for better or for worse.  Now many of us make that choice several times in one lifetime.

Who decides what’s good for me?  I do!  We live in a make your choices and take your consequences kind of culture.  While the number of choices we must make on a daily basis can be mind boggling at times, I prefer being responsible for myself over being stuck in the rut of someone else’s design.  I prefer having too many options over having too few even if I do have to search for the “unhealthy” salad dressing.

 —M. LaCourt