May 23, 2024

Live Once, Live Again: On the Importance of Making Choices.

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Einmal ist keinmal: “What happens but once, might as well not have happened at all.”

How do we know if our past decisions were the “right” ones when we have nothing to compare them to?

In Thus Spake Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche introduces the confusing yet enduring idea of eternal recurrence: a thought experiment that suggests that a good life is one that we would be willing to relive over and over again, second by second, for all eternity. Part of living a good life involves making the right decisions; but in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera suggests that, because we have nothing to compare our choices to, we can never know if they were good or not:

“There is no means of testing which decision is better, because there is no basis for comparison. And what can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself?”

Kundera’s understanding of the German adage, einmal ist keinmal, has psychological significance. We are often held back by the fear that our choices might be the wrong ones: should I give this relationship a chance? Should I move on to a new job? Should I take a risk on a new project, or play it safe instead? For someone as indecisive as myself, the fear of choosing the wrong thing is particularly debilitating. It not only becomes an excuse to avoid making choices but can also be so paralyzing that it makes decision-making of any kind impossible.

The hitch, however, is that by refraining from making choices, we are inadvertently choosing. Hunter S. Thompson said it best in a letter to his friend, Hume Logan: “A man who procrastinates in his choosing will inevitably have his choice made for him by circumstance.” Choosing not to choose is also a choice because life is in constant flux; it runs along with the unstoppable force of a river in flood, and we are all dragged along, whether we want to be or not. Passivity is therefore impossible, and remaining in one place is simply not an option. There is no pause button here: if you don’t make a decision, someone else will make it for you.

Life is filled with choices, both big and small. From the moment we wake up, we have to make decisions: what to eat, what to wear, what to say, where to go, and when to show up. As someone who struggles with choices, I have worked out strategies to avoid having to make too many decisions on a given day. I eat the same food every day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; I plan my outfits a week or two in advance; and I have an exercise schedule that stays the same, come rain or shine.

These strategies help me avoid “decision fatigue,” which describes the increasing exhaustion that comes with every decision we make. Someone once explained it to me in terms of mobile data: we wake up every morning with a certain amount of data, and with every choice we make, we use some of that data. Decision fatigue occurs when we’ve run out of data, in which case our brains no longer function optimally.

What concerns me most, however, are not the small, yet necessary, day-to-day decisions that we face all the time but the big, life-changing ones that can make or break you. Since we can never know the outcome of any choice ahead of time, how can we possibly know which decision is the right one to make?

I am in a phase of my life where I need to make big decisions. These involve where to live, what to do, who to keep around, and who to let go. I am at a crossroads in nearly every aspect of my life—both personal and professional—and the prospect of making these big decisions is terrifying. I spend most of my time trying to avoid thinking about them; but in truth, choosing to ignore them—to not make a choice—is me making a choice. The only difference is that by actively taking part in these decisions, I have some (however little) control over the outcome; in contrast, if I remain passive, life will make these choices for me, and I risk being dragged along without having any say in the matter.

There is some comfort in Kundera’s suggestion that life is a rehearsal of itself because even though he suggests that a life lived only once has no meaning, not having any basis for comparison can somewhat quell the fear of making the “wrong” choice. We can never know what the alternative outcome would’ve been; ergo, whatever choice we made was the right one. The most we can do is make the best decisions possible with the information available to us at a given time, and if things don’t turn out the way we hoped they would, we can take comfort in the knowledge that the alternative route might not have been that great, either.

We can use Nietzsche’s thought experiment of eternal recurrence to guide us; however, at the end of the day, what matters most is not the choice we make, but the very act of making a choice.


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