Illusion and Choice: Where do we go from Here?

Photo by Krista Pylant

Katie Livingston
Staff Writer

We’ve all experienced the mild sense of panic that occurs while standing in the frozen foaod aisle, trying decide between thirty flavors of ice cream.

The more choices, the more overwhelmed we are with our own power.

It is not a fear that the ice cream that we choose will taste bad, but that one of the flavors we leave behind would have tasted better.

Maybe you don’t have this problem.

Maybe you like chocolate ice cream, so that’s what you buy.

Maybe there’s nothing that can get between you and your chocolate ice cream.

But do you really like chocolate ice cream?

Or are you fooling yourself?

America is, aptly, called the land of the free. We have more choices than almost any society before us. After all, our Declaration lists liberty as a fundamental human right.

Not only is freedom a foundational ideology of our society, but also it is amplified by our modern, capitalistic lifestyle.

We are drowning in abundance. An abundance of food, clothing, technology and any other manner of goods that can be bought and sold. We can choose our careers, our spouses, our religions, our ideologies.

With this comes a sense of control over our identities, our lives and, most importantly, our choices — but it’s possible that sense of choice is illusory.

From a young age we’re frequently asked a very pointed question: What do you want to be when you grow up?

People insist we can be whatever we want, and that, in all the world, among the thousands of jobs out there, we can pick one, one that we truly love, one that we can make our own.

As children, this might seem an exciting prospect, but when adulthood begins to creep up, the sheer abundance of choice becomes stifling, rather than liberating.

College is much like standing in the frozen food aisle, inspecting the ice cream.

Except the ice cream is a college degree, and our decision will affect the rest of our lives, rather than the next few hours of them.

We feel a sense of paralysis, not from thinking that our choices will be bad, but from the idea that the choices we leave behind might have been better.

I have witnessed this sense of panic in others and felt it in myself.

I’ve seen students who remain undecided about educational goals because even thinking about what to do overwhelms them with stress.

I’ve seen students who flip from one major to another in constant search of the right one, and students who pick one major and stick with it, but constantly question whether they’re in the right place.

Our culture’s intense focus on the self doesn’t help with this existential panic.

From a young age, we begin to construct our identity, picking out which labels fit us and which don’t.

What kind of person am I?

Where do I fit?

What genres of music do I like?

What style of clothing represents who I am?

What is my passion?

Students who cannot answer these questions about their identities, those who can’t find a passion to chase after, may find themselves frozen.

Thankfully, society provides a convenient out for those who can’t, or won’t, make their own decisions: American society, like most societies, has a way of dictating what choices we should make.

There is a pattern of life that is expected of a successful person. This includes college, marriage, a home in suburbs, two and a half children, a stable career, a cushy retirement fund and a nice retirement home in Florida in which to comfortably die.

College itself is among these constructs. It’s commonly agreed upon that going to college and getting a degree is the right way to start a successful life and a successful career.

Never mind the fact that the value of a degree is steadily decreasing while the cost of acquiring one is steadily increasing and the fact that degrees may grow increasingly obsolete in the coming years.

In spite of this, many students don’t see college as an option, but as a necessity.

Though the choice to go was, in theory, theirs, they made no choice whatsoever.

When it comes to choosing a degree, we may be responding to the same messages, though in more subtle ways.

When we’re paralyzed by a sheer abundance of choice, it’s natural to look to other sources to make the decision for us, even if we don’t realize we’re doing it.

While we’re living in a free society, we may also be unintentionally caging ourselves in with the opinions, rules, dogmas and expectations of others as a matter of convenience.

If you were to stand in the frozen food aisle long enough, you might walk away with chocolate ice cream.

Your parents might have told you that chocolate ice cream is the best.

They might have even asked you to buy chocolate ice cream.

While it is you who chooses … was it really your decision?

Do you really like chocolate ice cream?

Or are you fooling yourself?

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