Monday, May 11, 2009

Side Effects of Freedom

I spent three weeks in a very cool volunteer (work-for-room-and-board) program in France a few years back, and one of the other volunteers had grown up in East Berlin. I was kind of fascinated to learn her perspective on things — what must it have been like to grow up behind the “Iron Curtain” (or giant concrete wall topped with barbed wire and AK-47-wielding guards, as it were)?

What was interesting — and it makes sense when you think about it — is that she was just a kid, and she didn’t know that she was growing up any differently than anyone else. She had loving parents, they got by modestly, and that was life. (Aren’t kids great like that? They’re so adaptable!)

But what really struck me was her description of the first few years after the Berlin Wall came down. They would go to the grocery store, and suddenly there were twenty different types of toothpaste. Before there had been just one: Toothpaste brand toothpaste. And this went for everything in the store, and beyond — remember all the McDonalds and other fast-food chains that sprang up in Eastern Europe in the early ‘90s? She said they were almost paralyzed by the choices; they didn’t know — hadn’t learned, gradually, like we have — how to filter through all the flashy logos and labels and could-be-bogus nutritional claims and sneaky ingredient lists and prices per package vs. prices per ounce.

And you know what? I’ve spent my entire life in the land of opportunity, where freedom reigns, and beyond enjoying a trip to the grocery store I even worked in one for years. But picking out a package of rice, or loaf or bread, or can of coconut milk is enough to send me into an anxiety spiral of self-doubt.

It’s the overwhelming assault of choices, all of which have some merit, and the cunning measures those brands employ to (it’s true) deliberately confuse the consumer. How can you be sure you’re making the right choice?

My wife often says that the thing she liked best about Catholic school was being forced to wear a uniform. Many people support school uniforms simply because it reduces the stigma placed on poorer kids, who can’t afford the newest sneakers, jeans, etc. But Gina loved it because it eliminated one of the most crippling decisions each day presents, especially for a girl: what to wear. Suddenly, one panic attack and 5–10 minutes of hand-wringing each morning are erased with a plaid skirt and white shirt. Maybe you can't be as expressive, but at least you can’t be wrong.

I think the paralysis associated with having too many choices even plays a prominent role in commitment-phobia among young singles. There are so many options — what if you make the wrong decision?  

Anyway, this is not to say that arranged marriages, Star Trek uniforms, and Soviet-era food shortages are the way to go. Heavens no! In our modern, webbed Western world, the choices are limitless, and I’m thankful for it. We are blessed with bounty, and it must be celebrated. But it's not without a few small side effects. 

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