The Impossibility of Choice

ballerina from PIxabay (CC0)
“ballerina” from Pixabay (CC0)

When I was kid, I had a lot of big dreams about what I wanted to be. Most kids do, of course, but I felt particularly ambitious. I could never be just one thing. I could never choose just one dream job. I was going to be a ballerina AND a lawyer. A rock star AND a famous writer. A teacher AND an astronaut. An archaeologist AND a concert pianist. Unfortunately, a lot of well-meaning adults (never my mother, mind you, but lots of other adults) kept insisting: “no, no, no, you can’t do everything. It just isn’t possible. Eventually – not now, but eventually – you’ll have to choose.”

I didn’t believe them. Or, if I did, the thought was too horrifying to entertain for long. How could I possible choose just one thing? Or even two?

Through middle school and high school, everyone around me started to narrow their big dreams down to more manageable ones. That’s not to say they stopped dreaming, just that their dreams took on more concrete forms. A genetics counselor. A web designer. One really did become a concert pianist. Another really did become a teacher. The classic childhood answers – ballerina, astronaut, rock star – began to fall away.

Even I played the game. I mimed my way through conversations with adults. But I even had trouble forcing myself to PRETEND to choose: in high school, I told everyone the plan was to be either a writer or a physicist – possibly both. Surely, I could get a degree in physics and write in my spare time. Surely. But deep down inside, ALL the old dreams still lingered. I played the piano, I kind of wrote (mostly bad) poetry – surely it wasn’t impossible to make that a career as a singer-songwriter-rockstar. If I did the physics degree, I could join the Navy science program, and then eventually NASA. And lo and behold, I would be an astronaut. Sort of. Possibly. Or, if I did an English degree, I could be a teacher AND a writer AND I could minor in archaeology and write about archaeologists and go on digs and that would totally count too.

rock star from pixabay (CC0)
“rock star” from Pixabay (CC0)

In college, out of sheer necessity, I settled on something. After two years trying to double-major in physics and English, while working nearly full-time, I finally realized I couldn’t do it all if I wanted to survive without a total mental breakdown, and chose English. And went on to get a Master’s and now a PhD in English.

But I’m 30 years old. And daily regret my choices. I wonder what it would be like if I had finished the physics degree instead. Or majored in Music and become a concert pianist. Or a singer. Or finished the minor in Anthropology/Archeology and done that as well. It doesn’t help that even my mother says things like: “you know, sometimes I think you made the wrong decision. I wonder if you would have been happier with the physics degree. It’s not too late to go back to school, you know.”

How do I learn to be happy with my choices, and settle down, when even my mother says out loud what my brain whispers to me daily?

I watch documentaries about space. Or go to planetariums. And I CRY.

moon landing from pixabay (CC0)
“moon landing” from Pixabay (CC0)

I go to rock concerts and crammed in by screaming, jumping, sweaty people, standing so close to speakers I can’t hear for days afterward, scream-singing to the music, staring with avid, gleeful, envy at the performers, and I am MORE ALIVE in those moments that all the months in between.

I work on my English PhD, and teach my freshman writing courses, and wonder how in hell’s name I can keep doing THIS for the rest of my life. I research turning humanities PhDs into work at a museum instead. And it seems viable. I think about taking up piano lessons again, and voice lessons, and making contact with a few people I know in recording studios, and THAT seems viable.

I think: maybe I’ll be a professional student and just stay in school my whole life. And THAT seems viable, but for the question of finances.

Am I simply incapable of being content? I talk to people who may have old dreams that linger, but that seem, and CLAIM to be, perfectly happy with the choices they’ve made. With the places they’ve ended up. I hear people speak with absolute conviction about their careers, saying: “I knew THIS was what I was meant to do with my life” and I am so envious and so incapable of imagining that feeling, that it makes me physically ill. That it makes me weep.

I saw a TED talk recently about this phenomena. It was a talk by Emilie Wapnick called “Why Some of Us Don’t Have One True Calling.” It was a revelatory to discover that other people had this feeling, had this dilemma. She calls us “Multi-potentialites.” It was nice to have an impressive sounding name. Rather than people always telling me that I don’t have focus, or concentration, that being a “jack of all trades” isn’t useful, that I have commitment issues, or I’m self-sabotaging, or that I need to stop thinking the grass is greener on the other side, and just settle down.

But this talk didn’t really help me in the long run, because I still don’t know what to do with myself. I don’t know how to decide. I feel trapped by the choices I’ve already made, and I don’t know how to feel unstuck. And what about money? Again and again, I butt heads with the platitudes about doing what you love, about trying things, and being brave, and not settling, because so often all these things require MONEY. I can barely pay the rent from month to month. How do I possibly afford to do the things I love – ALL the things I love? Because there are so many of them.

I am also reminded, painfully, of a passage from Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar:

“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.”

I still feel stuck. With so many choices, with so many dreams, I am wracked with indecision, and I will let them all die.

I still feel stuck, like eventually – not now, but eventually – I’ll have the choose. And when I can’t, I’ll have failed at some integral element of living.

stuck from pixabay (CC0)
“stuck” from Pixabay (CC0)

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