The hell of decision-making: finding freedom in the present moment

There’s a fork in the road before her and she cannot choose between these life paths even though she’s tried every trick she knows. She’s written multiple lists of pros and cons, hashed it out repeatedly with her brother, her best friend, and her therapist. She’s even consulted a tarot deck and flipped coins. The decision feels momentous, with impacts on all of her tomorrows, years yawning into an open-ended future, all of it hinging on what she chooses now. In this moment, she feels intimately tied to the theme of anguished indecision that frequently bursts out of poetry, songs, and films. The tense limbo she occupies connects her to one essential knotty root of the human condition itself. As Sartre put it, “We are are choices,” defining our very being — who we fundamentally and basically are — by and through the decisions we make.

Given the philosophical stakes long associated with decision-making, it’s hardly surprising that some folks can become tense at the prospect of almost any choice, even the small ones. I once went to dinner with a guy so torn between the fettuccine and the lasagne that he ended up skipping the entree altogether. He was so afraid of making the “wrong” choice that he decided, instead, to forego the potential pleasure of the meal. In those protracted, awkward moments as the waiter waited with his pen poised, I felt like I could observe my companion’s mental workings. He was both recalling poor restaurant meals from his past and imaginatively fast-forwarding to a time when he would regret the meal he was about to order. He was, as we so often are, relying on his imagination and fantasy about the past and future to try to make a decision that would save him from further disappointment and regret.

This imaginative leveraging of the past and future is a natural and nifty strategy that we deliberative, temporal beings have. Clearly, our facility for recollection and remembering is vital for making decisions that are better than those we made in the past. Isn’t this precisely what we mean by “learning from the past,” both our own and that of others? But this same imaginative tendency also permits us to thrust ourselves into pretend, hypothetical temporal planes that exist nowhere except in our own thoughts. As Mark Twain put it, “I’ve seen many troubles in my time, only half of which ever came true.” Our mentalized boxes full of dusty remembrances and precious collections of what-ifs correspond to a reality that is, at best, partial and distorted. At worst, of course, such backward and forward-looking projections are delusional, paranoid or otherwise wildly off the mark.

While there’s something important, and even poignant, about how decision-making, and free will more broadly, have occupied so many philosophers, then, there’s a real downside to overemphasizing the rationalizing, manipulative capacity associated with this capacity. It often seems as if our true aim is to be able to manage and predict every outcome, to control the unfolding of reality itself. This background fantasy helps explain why we may feel, not just disappointed, but cheated or ripped off, at least momentarily, when things do not turn out the way that we had planned and arranged for them to be. It’s one thing, then, to take responsibility for our choices, but quite another to teeter in the hell of magical-thinking that, if we only we are vigilant and smart enough to make the “correct” decisions, we can avoid pain and suffering.

Such wishful thinking helps explain why, when we learn of another’s misfortune — an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, cancer, a job layoff, a breakup, a car accident — we often reflexively seek to attribute a path of decision-making to that person that will account for the misfortune and reframe it as avoidable. Even though we “know better” and would probably not admit to doing this, don’t we often try to forensically investigate others’ choices to find reassurance that such horrors are avoidable for those of us who are careful and calculating enough? Did she drive too fast, eat too much sugar, or bury her head in the sand about her kid’s drug use? Maybe he failed to take his meds, tried to text while driving, or was too lazy to meditate enough. In our quest to fully exploit the power of human autonomy, do we also risk weaving a self-serving fantasy of mastery over self and the world?

Of course, at the other end of the continuum is a black hole of hopeless, hapless, helplessness so totalizing that a person can’t see themself as having any real agency, as unable to make even the slightest dent in their life circumstances. If I am merely a leaf being carried downstream, what difference can my will and effort really make? Although such quietist orientations may seem utterly unrelated to attitudes of grandiose, calculated mastery, these two positions are more like opposite sides of the same coin.

When I define myself as nothing but a product of my painful past with one foot dangling into the precipice of a projected miserable future, I do not exist in the present moment. Similarly, when I am obsessed with revisiting and analyzing the past in order to manipulate a positive future outcome, I am also failing to exist in the present moment. The great irony is that, whether optimistic or pessimistic, our decision-making selves often get so transfixed by fantasies of past and future that we fail to exist in the only place where authentic freedom and choice even become possible. Right here now.

One thought on “The hell of decision-making: finding freedom in the present moment

  1. Freewill? Tom Petty had it right: “I’m free. Free falling.”

    And how does one face being in free fall?

    The next song on the album is “Learning to Fly.”

    Where? “Into the Great Wide Open.”



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