You can do anything
Have it all
The world’s your oyster
These are the refrains of a generation obsessed with choice and freedom, and I’m their greatest proponent! I’ve reinvented myself once already and am soon to do it again (corporate world → philosophy → ???). Nothing whatsoever save my own will constrains my choices. There is no reason for me not to get a job that requires 15-hour days. There is no reason I can’t move to Singapore. There is no reason I can’t earn a salary tapping away at my laptop from the beach at Koh Samui (nothing is too good to be true any more, the internet will show you that). There is no reason I can’t binge-watch House of Cards till 5am on a Tuesday. There is no reason I can’t book a last-minute weekender to Stockholm. Lucky me!
And yet …
I’ve just come back from a bank holiday wedding. The common element in every wedding is the vows. When you get married, you promise all sorts of things to the person who’s about to become your spouse. You gain something great (hopefully!), but you also gain a lot of duties and obligations that you’re bound to organise big life decisions and everyday choices around: loving and cherishing, forsaking all others, and all the rest. An easy yoke and a light burden, one would hope, most of the time – at other times seemingly too great for one poor human to bear.
Most of the wedding attendees were couples, some of them with children. So while I went home with no clear idea of how I was going to spend the next day (go to the library? Have a lie-in? Catch up on a series I’m watching? Go shopping? None of the above? All entirely possible), most of them will have gone home with at least some of the next few days mapped out: children to put to bed, toddler socks to be picked up for the millionth time, kitchens to be cleaned, conversations with spouses to be had …
Does any of that sound annoying? All these obligations hoovering up the time you’d rather spend pursuing hobbies, watching Netflix or answering work emails?
Lately it has become clear to me that having the world as your oyster is annoying, too.
I know I’m lucky if that’s the case, and I’m not ungrateful. Bear with!
This is why: it’s not that fun not to know what to do with your life. There are two main problems: firstly, the endless possibilities waiting around every corner in the oyster-world deter you from getting stuck into any one of them. It makes it hard to choose in the first place, because you’re worried about choosing the absolute best path. The paralysis of choice is real. Secondly, it makes it hard to commit to what you’ve chosen: why continue on one path when there is, as a matter of fact, something better out there? Why not keep one’s options open? Then, with all these possibilities ahead, it’s hard to know what one ought to do. If one is married with children, for example, everyday choices can be meaningful because they fulfil those obligations, and improve the lives of your loved ones, making them the right choices. In my uncommitted state, it feels like the universe is pretty indifferent to what time I get up on a Saturday or what I cook for breakfast.
Of course, there is a question about what exactly one should commit to. If you commit to too many things, you burn out and are no good to anyone. If you commit to the wrong thing (for example by marrying the ‘wrong’ person), you can find yourself miserable to an extent that perhaps no amount of duty-fulfilment satisfaction can remedy. So it’s not a case of signing up for arbitrary duties just to land yourself with some purpose in life.
How to pick the right commitment is a bewildering question, but all I want to say for now is: what’s the use of the world being your oyster if you don’t do something with that opportunity? Freedom is not good just because it allows us to constantly dip back into the pool of opportunity – that is an unfortunate side effect. People often talk about freedom and free choice as an end in itself (for example, anything branded as ‘anti-choice’ is automatically bad), but I do not feel satisfied with my maximum liberty. Instead, it seems to me that freedom is good because it allows you to make unfettered choices. And I think most of us would prefer to fulfil freely chosen obligations over coerced ones. Those of us, like me, who are uncoerced by past choices, educational or financial limitations, mental or physical health issues, are the lucky ones – I’m well aware of that. But we have to actually make some choices, choices that constrain certain future choices and shut down certain options. But this apparent reduction in freedom is ok, because if we don’t achieve anything with our freedom, what’s the point?
After writing this post, I realised that I actually do have some obligations that I can get stuck into. I owe it to myself to do well in my studies, so my obligation is to revise for my exams rather than procrastinating. But this isn’t the type of obligation I wanted! Revision is boring and annoying! I’d rather write blogs and watch Netflix all day instead! This is where reality hits: boring and annoying is what duty sometimes looks like, not my romanticised picture of loading the dishwasher with an angelic smile and the halo that only a strong sense of purpose and the moral high ground can bestow.
It turns out that obligations are hiding in plain sight all around. In my post about Valentine’s Schmalentine’s, I wrote that we don’t need a romantic partner to get the benefit of learning to love others. We are surrounded by people that we can choose to love, in the appropriate way, at any time. Now, loving our neighbour is just one of the obligations that lies in wait for us. If our other duties don’t get up in our grill as much as a hungry screaming toddler does, then we need to look harder.