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Making Choices: The Good (and Bad) Place

Originally published in proFmagazine, December 31, 2018.

I don’t disagree that we should be conscious of what we owe others every time we have a choice to make. But can we truly consider what we owe others if we don’t start with what we owe ourselves?

Image: NBC

This post is about choices. I chose to write it some time ago for the proF series on #choices and have been stuck as I work through paragraph by paragraph: choosing sentences and then deleting them, selecting words and then changing them, settling on an approach and then altering it. It’s just so damn hard to choose how to write about choices! What if I choose the wrong approach? What if the choice doesn’t make sense? What if my chosen topic, story line, syntax and ultimate conclusions are judged to be unimportant, inadequate, ineffective, boring or . . . all the above?!

But on second thought, what if my decision to write about choices resonates with someone? What if my choices make a difference? What if I worry less about what, how and why my choices affect others and just choose to write something that allows me to reflect and feel satisfied?  

Therein lies the challenge with choices. What are they, how many do we have and why do we have them? Do we make them for ourselves or for others? How can we possibly choose?

My latest television obsession (well, one of them) is the NBC comedy The Good Place. (Read on at your own risk, as there are SPOILERS herein.) The show brings together a cast of characters that, upon their untimely deaths, arrive in “the good place” – a beautiful and perfect version of eternity. While the four main characters outwardly appear to be “good” people who deserve to be in the good place (with the exception of one character, played by Kristen Bell), they are in fact exceedingly troubled (and selfish) individuals who have made some questionable choices throughout their lives. 

I adore Kristen Bell’s humor, so watching the show came naturally to me. But I really fell in love with the show’s premise several episodes into the first season when Kristen’s character, Eleanor Shellstrop, utters the line, “wait a minute, this isn’t the good place, this is the badplace!” The jig was up for Michael (Ted Danson), who turns out to be the evil architect of this version of the afterlife. Not only is the show hilarious, but I love the way it explores our human struggles from various angles – particularly regarding the choices we make and the consequences that result.

It wasn’t until season two, episode 11, that I realized just how perfectly the show addresses the trickiness of choice-making. Chidi (William Jackson Harper) and Eleanor are facing one of their daily moral quandaries:

Chidi: If this isn’t a test, then it’s something way worse!

Eleanor: What?

Chidi: A choice – that we have to make!

Eleanor: Why can’t one part of the calculation of our eternal fate be easy?!

Those few lines said it all, and cemented my love for the show. It is, of course, truly human to face ethical dilemmas regularly. Despite our natural tendency to be self-interested, we are each navigating various dilemmas in a collective space called society, and we must simultaneously contemplate what we owe to each other and ourselves with nearly every choice we make.

For years (well, for nearly my entire life) I have examined the role that various choices have played in determining my experiences (and existence). Not just the specific choices themselves or their substance – although there is plenty there to analyze – but the actual fact that there are choices to make. In fact, one of the things we seek, it seems to me, is to havechoices – that is what freedom means, right? Liberty is all about having choices rather than having none. For someone who emphasizes the importance of human agency, anyone who feels that she “has no choice” is truly one who is un-free.

I used to stress this particular version of freedom with my daughter when she was young – that she was fortunate to have so many choices ahead of her every day. She could wear a skirt or pants to school; she could wear her hair short or long; she could choose what to study and what career to have some day; she could choose whether or not to have children and, if she did have kids, she could choose how to raise them. The opportunities for choice-making were endless. And while it is truly amazing to have so many choices available to us – especially to women – choices also come with a range of emotions, worries and consequences, both positive and negative.

Moreover, choices come with the risk of confusion, avoidance and paralysis, as well as anxiety (as in Chidi’s case – and as in my opening paragraph). While choices are liberating and freeing on the one hand, they are packed full of dilemmas and challenges on the other. The Good Place emphasizes the moral and ethical questions we face when making choices and the calculations that influence the decision process – weighing costs and benefits, considering the personal consequences that result from being judged for your choices, and, of course, examining the impact of your choices on others, which leads to the show’s central theme: “what we owe to each other.”

Though we constantly contemplate whether we are making the right or wrong choice, we rarely reflect on the actual experience of having choices – and what it means. In a 2010 study on consumer behavior, psychologists Hazel Rose Markus and Barry Schwartz ask if choice really does lead to freedom and well-being. They argue that choice is largely a cultural construct that is based on the beliefs and ideas promoted among educated and relatively wealthy (and privileged) Westerners. In fact, Markus and Schwartz suggest that the notion of “having choices” is not universally considered inherently pure or good – even when choice can or does lead to “freedom, empowerment, and independence.”

Years ago, when in graduate school and working toward my PhD, I was involved in several projects about weapons proliferation and export controls in the former Soviet region. It was the early 1990s and the former Soviet Union had dissolved into several “newly independent states.” Somewhere around 1993, a few officials and experts from Belarus responsible for their new country’s arms control policies visited us in the United States for a conference about the subject. They wanted to go shopping, so I took them to a large grocery store in Athens, Georgia (where I lived at the time) and watched their faces as we perused each aisle. They could not believe the range of options and were seemingly stuck trying to determine how to choose what kind of cereal, which brand of toothpaste, and whether to buy L’Oreal or Cover Girl or Maybelline or Revlon makeup to take back home. Their experience appeared to me to be a combination of envy and pity, excitement and overwhelming paralysis. This experience reminded me of a quote from the 1984 Robin Williams movie, Moscow on the Hudson: “In America everyone is free! Sometimes too free.”

Is there such a thing as being too free, with too many choices and too many decisions to make? Perhaps there is a happy medium when it comes to the range of choices we have – a Goldilocks Rule of choice-availability. Can there be a “just right” amount of choices available to us? Even Markus and Schwartz argue that, “the path to well-being may require that we strike a balance between the positive and negative consequences of proliferating choice in every domain of life.” While fewer choices rather than more may be a hard sell (and is probably quite unlikely – especially within capitalist society where the concept of choice as freedom is deeply embedded), maybe we can at least start with the premise of trust: especially trust in ourselves.

The Good Place is ultimately about what we owe others. And I don’t disagree that we should be conscious of what we owe others every time we have a choice to make. But can we truly consider what we owe others if we don’t start with what we owe ourselves? Not from the perspective of selfish outcomes, but from a sense of trust in ourselves and our ability to make choices accordingly. In fact, my take on Eleanor and the other characters in The Good Placeisn’t that they were bad people because they were exceedingly selfish and didn’t serve others; instead, they were weak in their love and trust of themselves. It seems to me that the lack of self-trust, self-love and self-compassion as a basis for what we owe each other is what ultimately led them to the “bad place.”

So when it comes down to making choices in our lives, we should consult our inner gurus, tap into our well-worn wisdom, and trust in ourselves. One can always be prepared for whatever judgment may follow, but no matter the outcome, self-love and trust is the necessary starting point. As Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once said, “As soon as you trust yourself, you will know how to live.”


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