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The pain of choice

Posted by Simon Parke, 10 February 2020, 10.56am

‘Choice is a good thing.’ Discuss.

On the face of it, we’ll not waste too much time with the debate. Of course choice is a good thing!

It’s the basis of democracy, of freedom, surely? Life without choice would be a prison. Only tyrants and fundamentalists would suggest otherwise.

Those trapped in slavery; in controlling relationships; in poverty; in physical sickness or disability; in oppressive regimes – they will dream of choice and the chance to express their own will.

Choice for them can only be good news; though there is another side.

In John Gardner’s novel Grendel, Grendel visits an old priest, seeking wisdom. He is offered just four words – but they are words which reveal the root of so much human despair.

‘Things fade; alternatives exclude.’

It is the last two words we focus on here - ‘alternatives exclude’ - words which remind us of the pain choice brings.

We think of the dog who died of starvation, between two juicy bones. He wanted them both, so he couldn’t decide – and to choose one would have been to say goodbye to the other.

You may have known this in your life; something found means also something lost.

The decision made for one thing means excluding something else; every ‘yes’ is also a ‘no’.

‘You just need to move on!’ people say – but this is not always so easy. For what will I leave behind?

In the 14th century, Julian of Norwich ‘moved on’. She famously opted to become an anchoress; to be sealed in to a cell, in order to be safe to write of the revelations given to her. This was her ‘yes’ – and we now enjoy the sweet fruit of her labours.

But her cell was also a ‘no’ – a ‘no’ to the bluebell woods and the winter sun; to walks by the harbour and the cathedral at Christmas.

The initial joy of the ‘yes’ can sometimes give way to regret and even despair.

Alternatives exclude; and this is difficult, because somewhere inside us we want it all. And a dominant message in society today is that we can have it all.

‘Don’t let anyone fence you in or say you can’t!’

Choice is a good thing; I believe so. Whether in action, attitude or behaviour, it is how we express our humanity.

For good or ill, I am my choices.

But choice is also costly, because every ‘yes’ is a ‘no’. Every taking up is also a letting go, whether it’s a job, a relationship or some other adventure.

And the letting go can haunt us for years.

Our lives – no, our days - are full of decisions with consequences; and how we’re able to look after ourselves in making them, is a significant pointer to our state of contentment.

We’ll make mistakes; or what we feel are mistakes. Of course we will; how could it be otherwise? Choices are made ‘blind’, with no foreknowledge available; and consequences can crucify. 

So we’ll need a kindly light to live by; and help and hope along the way, to allow and live what is.

And maybe we’ll find that while we can’t have it all…

... we can still possess everything.

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