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Calm • Perspective

The Inevitability of Choice

The modern world is never very keen to encourage us to make choices. We can — it tells us blithely — raise families and, at the same time, have flourishing careers. We can achieve tremendous things at the office, and keep our bodies in ideal shape. We can be ethical and successful. This is meant to be kind but it ends up being a cruelty all of its own.

It would be more honest and a lot more useful to admit to a darker reality: we need to choose. We cannot run a philharmonic orchestra and be a great and ever-present parent. We cannot be remorselessly effective in the workplace and constantly act with benevolence and kindness. And we definitely can’t be completely calm and, concurrently, accumulate worldly riches and social renown. Something has to give — and it invariably does.

Photo by David Fartek on Unsplash

This starkness helps us precisely because there are so few public reminders of life’s necessary trade-offs. Yet once we understand the incompatibilities, we are in a better position to do what we always needed to do: choose. With life’s incommensurate aspects more clearly in view, we can end up in a position to sound out our own values and rank our priorities accordingly. 

A noisy life has a range of specific upsides: glamour, fame, sex, triumph, thrill. And — of course — some downsides too: panic, exhaustion, fear, restlessness, mental collapse. Equally, a calm life has some lovely things going for it — rest, perspective, ease, contentment — while also threatening us with grave negatives: boredom, marginalisation, envy and emptiness.

The point is that we have to make a choice, and the more we see things as a choice, the less we will need to be surprised or let down by encounters with the downsides. If we aim for calm, we’ll have done so without sentimentality. We’ll know exactly what those rather empty days are protecting us against; we’ll have openly chosen repose over drama, and mental well-being over the threat of breakdown. Naturally, at points, we’ll rue the downsides. We’ll feel wretched the day an old university acquaintance reveals they sold their company for a fortune or that there’s a party going on in town to which we were not invited. These things sting. But we’ll have acquired the ultimate safeguard. We’ll know — in a way our societies never help us to — that we faced a choice and took it; we’ll know we chose calm with our eyes open.

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