Are you gonna take the umbrella?
On indecision or indecisiveness or uncertainty or second thoughts or…
Picture this, if you will. It’s early evening in the city, getting on to dusk, and the sky is dark and grey with clouds. You’re finished with the work day, at least temporally, but things have been hectic lately and that workstress bleeds into your personal life like watercolors. You still need to get to the grocery store because you know you should cook tonight, in fact, you’ve already promised you’d cook tonight. Your significant other is the one you promised and you know that the world is just chock full of opportunities to disappoint your significant other; and so you reassure yourself that this evening will not be one of those.
However… when you catch a glimpse of the sky out of your apartment’s solitary window it sort of looks like it could rain, and the weather app you use suggests the same: 60% chance, it reports. That’s a high chance of rain, you think, but you know that also means there’s a 40% chance it won’t rain. 40% is pretty high too, you think. You’d take 40% odds (or way worse) in other situations… You are, after all, a betting man. It’s a toss-up, really, weather-wise. It could rain; it could not. There is pretty much only one way to find out and that’s to wait for it to happen, or not happen. But you don’t have that kind of time right now; you’ve got to get to the grocery store to get something for dinner. Now, the only question your work-weary head can comprehend is: are you gonna take the umbrella?
It should be a simple answer, right? This exact scenario (rain, or the threat of it) is precisely why you own the umbrella, you think. Surely this situation fits like a square peg into the square hole of that marvelous term: a no-brainer. You’re either prepared, or you’re not. But, you think… if you take the umbrella and it doesn’t rain, you’re stuck carrying something entirely superfluous while you grocery shop, and after you leave the apartment with the umbrella in hand and the sun inevitably shines through the cloud cover like an admonishment from on high you will feel like a fool and, worse, look like one.
But if you don’t bring the umbrella and it does rain, you will be soaking and then forced to grocery shop while soaking and you will look and feel like an even bigger fool and will be a soaking wet fool to boot. And then you’d have to change your clothes, maybe even take a shower, before your significant other arrives and that won’t give you enough time to have the dinner prepared and… no, no, it’s final, you simply must bring the umbrella…
Capitalism, voting, shopping (and that transition) — all of these are about choice, or the illusion of it. All of these, too, save for the poor writing, are supposedly fundamental to the American experience. This candidate or that one. This brand or that one. This side or the other one. It’s a world of black and white, where everybody ignores the dominance of grey.
Choice is an exercise of power, when it comes down to it. And to be the decision maker, this is the ultimate power. The ultimate authority. Think about it. Just don’t overthink it. Is it any wonder why we are so obsessed with the plethora of our choices, the sheer number of our options, the unassailable availability of whatever it is that we want? This is the siren song of capitalism, isn’t it? A free market, where freedom of choice abounds, where the strong and desirable survive, where individuals exercise their power, their unlimited agency, by picking between the available options. Choosing. Decisions. Selection.
So how come things always seem to boil down to just two main options — the binaries of commerce, we call them — in which the brands themselves buy into the overarching narrative of competition? The two horse race between the favorites. You know them: Coke vs. Pepsi; Lyft vs. Uber; Mac vs. PC; Nike vs. Adidas; Amazon vs. literally everybody else. Perhaps these binaries unveil themselves because our choice, our say in the matter, is utterly illusory and the options laid out before us are predetermined and have been presented by the same corporate mechanisms and inter-workings that make global commerce global commerce. Yes, ‘the market’ decides winners and losers, but the market is decided by only god knows what.
You may be thinking that all of this is well-reasoned and logical and something you can get behind. Or you may be thinking that we are full of shit, and none of this will hold up to scrutiny, and that is all well and good and actually preferred. Because you should be thinking, hmmm this logic of non-choice surely begs the question: If we only really have two choices, are they really even choices? Can that be considered choice, really? Is it worth celebrating the freedom to select between two unalterable options? Am I really the one in charge over whomever is presenting the choices? If I’m selecting things off of this silver platter then who in this hell is holding the platter and deciding what is on it? Surely that choice supersedes my own in terms of consequential importance?
Or could it be that the very illusion of choice is somehow essential to our survival and well being? Well, of course it is, at least for our mental well-being; without purpose what’s the point? Without a point, what’s the purpose? Suddenly we’re in dangerously nihilistic territory. Remember above all that your purpose is to go on. The point of it all is to be. And another beauty is that you don’t even have to be much.
Can you even know you’ve made the right choice unless you are also exposed to that which you did not choose? To choose one thing means sacrificing the other thing — economists and parents call this ‘opportunity cost’ we’re pretty sure — and as soon as the other thing is sacrificed, it takes on for you the aura of a martyr and becomes all that more desirable, all that more revered; the grass that is greener. Thankfully for you, our buckles are interchangeable — endless possibilities. But in these less fortunate binaries, as soon as you’ve gone with ‘1’ you really start to admire the shape of the ‘0’, and vice versa. You soon come to realize that the only thing more satisfying than having choice is making the right one.
But, on the flip side, what if ‘choice’ presents the alternate problem? That of being too much, too many. We’ve all* looked at a wine list and thought, this is simply overwhelming. We’ve all changed answers on a multiple choice test, only to find out after the fact that our first instinct was the correct one, and perhaps we all still live with that trauma. We happen to think that trauma is what haunts each and every decision we make, gut or otherwise. Because at its core the act of decision-making is terrifying. It is anxiety inducing. As soon as you think you’ve made up your mind in one direction, four other directions pull even stronger. It is this seesawing that lends such drama to each and every decision you make. You are aware that you have the ability to decide, the power to decide, and this is freeing, in a way. But if you’ve learned anything from Existentialist thinkers — Sarte, Beauvoir, Nietzsche, come on, you know them —if you’ve learned anything, you know that freedom of choice, the freedom to decide for yourself, can be one of the strongest sources of anxiety in your very human psyche. It’s the ‘Paranoid King’ thinking: you know you’re being paranoid, but what if you’re not being paranoid enough?? If you’re so free to decide, then it’s your fault alone if you decide incorrectly, isn’t it? If there are no guardrails, what’s to stop you from going over the edge?
Geoff Dyer’s book, a half-memoir, half criticism about the process of writing a study on the writer D. H. Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage, illustrates this anxiety of oscillation better than anything we’ve read in recent years:
One of the reasons, in fact, that it was impossible to get started on either the Lawrence book or the novel was because I was so preoccupied with where to live. I could live anywhere, all I had to do was choose — but it was impossible to choose because I could live anywhere. There were no constraints on me and because of this it was impossible to choose. It’s easy to make choices when you have things hampering you — a job, kids’ schools — but when all you have to go on is your own desires, then life becomes considerably more difficult, not to say intolerable.
So here you are, still standing in your apartment, with the rush of time flowing ever onward, mentally fluctuating between bringing the umbrella or leaving the umbrella, all in the name of preparedness. You can only go in one direction, and you want to be careful that the direction you do go in doesn’t also result in those nagging thoughts about what could have been, about what’s already passed: regret and nostalgia and thoughts of these. You still have not left for the grocery store because you are here weighing the options and the consequences of this useless decision, all to not be caught off guard by yet another thing that you have absolutely no control over. And perhaps that’s why you’re spending (dare we say wasting) all this time running decision trees and prediction algorithms to make a decision about something (the umbrella) that is seemingly within your control; to exercise some semblance of power in a world that otherwise finds you somewhat powerless, somewhat inconsequential. The clouds don’t care if you have the umbrella or not. The people you pass on the street don’t care either. Nobody is keeping score. But…aren’t you? Should you be? You decide.
In the end, you were always going to do what you ended up doing, because that’s how time works. If you do take the umbrella, that’s what you were always going to do. If you don’t take the umbrella, that’s what you were always going to do. In a way, it’s already written. The world isn’t privy to your cerebral seesawing. The world only sees you with the umbrella, or without it.
And no matter how often we try to predict what the clouds will say, in the end we always just let them do the talking.