My friend Paul, who’s recently been dubbed a maven (Wiki: “a trusted expert in a particular field, who seeks to pass knowledge on to others”) by readers of this blog, told me about a study he’d read about that demonstrated how choice does not give us happiness. To the contrary, the study showed, choice provides for indecision, pain and anxiety.
I have always been a fierce advocate of freedom of choice. Take away our choices, I’ll tell you, and you take away our humanity. So it was deeply shocking to think that I might all this time have been all advocating unhappiness.
I was reminded of Paul’s study again when friends Kerry and Gordon picked us up from the airport this week. Somehow over coffee we got talking about an odd process we remembered from a weekend workshop we had all done many years ago. In this activity, one of the participants was invited to the front of the room to work with the leader on the issue of choice. He was presented with a pair of plastic ice cream cones, one representing chocolate and one vanilla. “Which do you choose?” he was asked. “I choose chocolate,” he replied easily. The question that followed was more challenging: “Why? Why do you choose chocolate?”
For well over half an hour, the leader proceeded to repeat the questions, over and over demonstrating the invalidity of the participant’s various answers to the question WHY. At first the interaction seemed like a contrived lesson in logic, but at some point, the penny dropped for me, as it did for everyone in the room. It was a Zen moment. You choose chocolate because you choose chocolate. If you really tell the truth about it, you don’t fully understand your logic; you can’t be sure of your reasons; you’ve just inherited certain ways of looking at the word; you simply make up your meaning and reasons.
Ultimately, you just choose what you choose.
The idea of course was to de-mythologise the enormous angst we put into the question “WHY?” We suffer no end wondering why we chose what we chose, whether we should have chosen it, what would happen if we chose something else. We second-guess ourselves in an infinite loop. The real freedom comes when you catch yourself at it and simply accept what you’ve chosen.
But it didn’t feel like that at 3:00 a couple of mornings ago when I woke up, heart pounding because I couldn’t figure out where I was. We’d just spent 15 hours on the long flight from Vancouver to Sydney, and it had done my head in. Even when I figured out I was home, I couldn’t sleep. Perhaps some of my body’s cells thought it was 10:00 a.m. on Vancouver Island and I should be long up and at it. Perhaps my cells were still trying to breathe naturally after all that time in a hurtling pressurised packet. Possibly a number of them were too busy fighting the viruses and bacteria they’d encountered through the A/C to let me sleep.
Whatever the reason, my heart was thundering and my brain was out of control. Once I figured out where I was, I didn’t want to be there. It was all about choice. Maybe I shouldn’t have gone to Canada. Maybe I shouldn’t have come back. Maybe I’m missing something of colossal importance. Why did I choose to do what I’ve done?
However, behind the pounding heart, a little melody was perking through my head: “I am on my way…ay…ay…ay..ee…ay ♪♫”. That’s because an hour or so after we got home from the airport, Rick and I headed out to join our community choir, which meets every Thursday. It seemed like a good way to keep ourselves up and active until bedtime. And I can’t tell you how excellent it was to spend a couple hours singing with these marvellous voices—although the earworms did add to the cacophony in my head at 3:00 a.m.
After the choir experience, we went to the pub with a dozen or so fine friends, swapping stories and catching up on what we’ve missed. But at exactly the same time as I was relishing these friendships and talking about our three months in Canada, my heart was sore from missing my daughter, and my son, and my mother; my fabulous cousins and my four spunky sisters-in-law and assorted good friends new and old who live in the northern hemisphere. I was beginning to see how choice can cause pain.
Sitting here now, I’m badly missing my daily trips to Serious Coffee in Nanaimo with Rick and often daughter Jenn to do the crossword. —But this afternoon we’ll be off to the Waterbird Café where the Manning River laps under the floorboards of the deck while we crack Will Shortz’ logic.
I’m missing the autumn in Mum’s garden, and I regret not being there for the gradual quietening down of the summer’s garden energy, and the rest that follows. —But here spring is on its way; blossoms are out everywhere, the gingers are shooting from the ground, the veggie garden is cascading with lettuce and kale.
I can hear the faint shooosh of the surf—sounding remarkably like the soft hum of the Island Highway rushing by my mother’s house a kilometre or two away.
The truth is, I’m not suffering from too much choice. I’m experiencing loss, of course, but the suffering is from all the second-guessing about choices I’ve already made. I’ve abandoned that valuable lesson about why we choose chocolate. (Reminder: you choose chocolate because you choose chocolate!)
Consider the word “why”. Here’s what it looks like: Y. Notice those two forks. Think about what it feels like to get yourself caught in the fork between those two ominous branches. – That’s me today.
And speaking of choosing chocolate, there was a second, even more Zen, part to the chocolate/vanilla exercise, which I’ll talk about next week.
Unless you are an insane New York Times crossword enthusiast, do not read on.
But if you are, while we’re on the subject of Zen truths, you might enjoy these clues from a recent NYT puzzle, titled “We Hold These Truths To Be Self-Evident”.
Perhaps you had to be there, but we had fun unravelling them over a Serious coffee.
Clue: “Classic excuse for some misdemeanors”. Solution: BOYS WILL BE BOYS
Clue: “Declaration from Popeye”. Solution: I YAM WHAT I YAM
Clue: “Doubt-dispelling words from Lady Macbeth”. Solution: WHAT’S DONE IS DONE
Clue: “Famous Yogism”. Solution: IT AIN’T OVER TILL IT’S OVER
Clue: “Words dismissing detractors”. Solution: HATERS GONNA HATE
Clue: “Expression of resignation”. Solution: IT IS WHAT IT IS
Clue: “We will tolerate this no more!” Solution: ENOUGH IS ENOUGH