On Decisions

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”

 — Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

Growing up, my mom’s favorite parental tactic was to offer my sisters and me only two choices. Instead of, “What do you want to eat?” — which would have allowed us to beg for cookies, ice cream, or orange macaroni and cheese — my mom instead said, “Would you like peas or carrots?” I owe my mom a big thank you, because this tactic definitely helped me develop healthy eating habits. However, it didn’t help me learn to make decisions when I’m faced with more than two choices.

I have never been good at making decisions. It’s just not my forte. I need a pros and cons list and a venn diagram just to choose between peas and carrots, so you can only imagine what happens when you throw corn into the picture. My friends often makes fun of me for my complete and utter inability to make plans for the weekend, because I simply can’t make a decision that far ahead of time. At the beginning of Casablanca, Yvonne drinks alone at the bar, and asks Rick, “Where were you last night?” Barely paying attention to her, Rick responds, “That was so long ago, I don’t remember.” Yvonne then follows up, “Will I see you tonight?” and Rick, seemingly oblivious to the fact that it’s already nighttime and a beautiful woman in the bar is asking to see him, responds, “I never make plans that far ahead.” I’m Rick.

Remember that age old rule that if a man asks you out after Wednesday for a date on Friday night, you should tell him that you’re busy so that he learns to plan his week around you? Well I’m the opposite — if you want to go out with me on Friday night, please don’t expect a straight answer before Friday night.

Lately I’ve been feeling really overwhelmed by the ticking clock that forces me to make decisions before decisions are made for me. What I study, what I don’t study, which classes I take, which classes I don’t take, which jobs I apply for, how to prioritize and balance my life in a way that fosters a comfortable but meaningful lifestyle — all of these feel like decisions that I will always be too young and too indecisive to make.

I don’t mean to complain; I am so lucky to have choices and options, and to live in a place where I can claim ownership of my decisions and actions. The freedom to decide one’s own future is, unfortunately, still a luxury in most of the world. But expressing gratitude for my choices doesn’t make actually making them any easier.

Fortunately, I recently found a great decision-making lesson hidden in the Matrix. Neo is offered two choices: he can the blue pill, which will allow him to wake up the next morning with no recollection of his journey down the rabbit hole and the luxury of believing whatever he wants to believe — or  he can take the red pill, and stay in Wonderland to discover how deep the rabbit hole goes.

Neo takes the red pill and discovers that the entire world in which he grew up is nothing more than a matrix, an illusory system that enslaves bodies for energy by forcing them to believe that the matrix is reality. But the real illusion in this scene is the illusion of choice, the illusion that the blue pill was even a viable option. From the moment that Neo is offered his choice of pills, it’s clear to the viewer that if Neo were to take the blue pill, he would wake up the next morning with the feeling that he’d just had a strange and illusive dream, and he’d spend the rest of his life wondering what that dream might have been. Neo knows this too, so he knows that the red pill is his only real option.

I, too, can separate my decisions into blue pills and red pills. Blue pill decisions are the things that I can live without, the paths that seem interesting and are probably wonderful, but won’t haunt me for the rest of my life if I choose not to take them. Blue pills are the classes on Greek and Roman mythology, a career in the foreign service, dancing ballet, learning Arabic, studying International Studies, and buying that gorgeous dress from French Connection that I have no need for whatsoever and no way of justifying the expense. Red pill decisions are the books, the people, the places that would forever haunt my curiosity if I were to take the blue pill instead. Red pills are the intellectual history classes taught by my favorite professors, the theory classes that seem completely inapplicable yet feel more applicable than anything else I’ve ever learned, the trip to Nepal, Thailand, and India, learning more about yoga, living in different cities and countries.

When watching “The Matrix”, it’s obvious to the viewer that Neo is going to choose the red pill. The blue pill isn’t really an option, it’s just there to help pretend that Neo has a choice, so that he can feel like the red pill was his decision. As a wise friend once told me, you’ve already made the decision — you just need to accept the decision that you’ve already made.

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