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Work • Purpose

The Agonies of Choice

For most of history, we had no choice around most things in our lives: there was only one job we could do and it would be chosen for us by our family. There was only one candidate we could marry and our parents picked them out. There was one set of people in the vicinity and they could not be avoided. There was no chance to live anywhere else; there was little one could afford to buy; there was no news from anywhere and nothing much to envy or long for. No figures of authority could ever be questioned: one had to follow whatever was dictated by families, preachers, teachers, kings and queens and, of course, God, who knew everything and had very precise plans for how one should conduct oneself, from birth till death, pretty much every day. There was no point even wondering if we were happy; nothing could change if we weren’t. One existed between a set of very firm and very prescriptive walls.

Modernity has blasted open our confines and rendered us ‘free’ at every level. We can choose whatever job we like, marry whomever we please, divorce at any time, live anywhere, question anything, obey no one. It sounds pleasant and in some ways it is; but it is also a very heavy and, at points, almost intolerable burden.

For long periods, we may manage to shield ourselves from the full realisation of the freedoms we possess. We continue into adulthood with some of the mentality we adopted in our early years, we’re meek children pretending to be grownups. We place our trust in teacher substitutes (bosses, governments). We tell ourselves that various irksome aspects of our lives belong to ‘duty’ (like a version of homework). We dismiss thoughts of change by imagining that our friends and acquaintances would be shocked and deeply invested in our current arrangements. And all the while, we picture that people in authority must know, they look so respectable and so knowledgeable, and therefore we follow them even if we don’t quite understand the reasons for their dictates. What is just has to be.

And then come the crises that, as much as they manifest themselves in individual lives, are fundamental to our whole era: moments of radical uncertainty when we cannot any more explain why we are doing this rather than that, married to this person rather than someone else, doing this particular job rather than any other, living here rather than elsewhere. We realise two things above all: that no one cares and no one knows. No one cares who we are with and what we are up to; they may have some prejudices and points of view but they are essentially too taken up with their own struggles to bother with how we are living. Their assumptions about who we are are, that we once thought of as impregnable and essential to fit in with, are revealed as paper thin and flexible. We could call them up today and rewrite our entire biographies in their minds and they would, after a moment of surprise, shrug their shoulders and move on. 

It seems like our organisation would miss us a lot if we decided to quit: but within a week, they’d hardly remember us. We’re not indispensable anywhere. We might become an artist, a politician, a gardener or a recluse in a small house in a barren part of Andalucia. We don’t have to be anywhere; that is the old school way of thinking. Term has ended now and we don’t have to come back, ever… As for authority, no one seems to know: the government doesn’t, the old teachers certainly don’t, all the people we once looked up to appear to have little clue. 

And all the while, just to make our thoughts even more intense and agitated, we know that time is running out: that others have achieved so much more by our age, that we’re going to be old and then dead very soon. We suffer from a vertigo of choice. We may long for the old prison walls. We long to be told what we have to do by a voice in the sky. It feels like we are going out of our minds: we are just typical anxious citizens of modernity.

We don’t generally talk about such crises. They feel shameful. But they are an endemic part of what it means to live in modern times. If we are even slightly conscious, how could we not at regular intervals rattle everything that we are and have done? How could we not be panicked at the opportunities we have wasted, the questions we haven’t thought of asking, the energies we haven’t known how to harvest? We are dying and the best part of us threatens to be buried without us ever having had the courage to explore ourselves – because we are shielding ourselves from the infinite options of adulthood, trying to remain a child and blame other people and outwards circumstances for our inactivity and fear.

We should be allowed to admit that we usually don’t have enough strength of character to master our options. Only a few hundred people ever do in any generation. We will, in relation to our potential, have largely ‘ruined our lives’. We won’t have known how to make the most of our freedoms. We will have longed for too many decades to please the teachers and our parents. At least we can admit to the problem. It’s extremely normal – and in its way, viewed with genuine kindness, almost funny. We should hold out our arms to our fellow, tortured citizens of modernity. This isn’t just our fuck-up, it’s the human condition: to be able to choose but to choose wrongly, to be able to move, but to be too scared to budge, to know the big assumptions are false but not to have courage or mental will to come up with alternatives, to understand that most people around us are fools we don’t even like but to stay absurdly worried about what they think of us nevertheless. 

None of this is strange; it belongs to the agonies of modernity – which deserve to be charted, laughed over and railed against, even when they cannot be overcome.

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