Several years ago, I went through a period when I struggled with unemployment—no matter how many job applications I submitted, nothing seemed to come of my efforts. That is, until one day (as it often happens) I got two job offers at the same time. The offers were both appealing to the same extent, with each option having its own set of benefits and drawbacks. Feeling stressed and weighed down by the impeding decision, I approached a good friend for some guidance. He assuaged my worries immediately, as he smiled and congratulated me for facing “the best problem to have.”
My friend’s positive attitude helped me to recognize that, by having the option to make a choice, I was in fact in a very privileged position. After all, choice is a socio-economic force that not everyone is fortunate to experience. Existing political, economic and social structures create and perpetuate unequal opportunities—the result being that marginalized individuals and/or communities are not able to make meaningful choices and therefore lack agency over their lives. So, while hard decisions can be daunting, being in the position to choose deserves to be celebrated rather than to be feared.
In a 2014 TED talk entitled “How to Make Hard Choices,” professor and philosopher Ruth Chang encourages her audience to embrace the decision-making process. She explains that, when it comes to hard choices, we automatically think there is a correct option. We believe that one alternative must be better than the other but that the answer eludes us. Instead, Chang posits that difficult choices are difficult precisely because there is no best option. While the set of values behind each decision may be different, they are not akin to scientific quantities and therefore cannot be measured against each other in the same way that we measure weights, heights, etc… Either choice is “on par” with the other (TED talk).
Now I agree with Chang in so far as a person has the opportunity to make a decision. As previously discussed, many people from underprivileged socio-economic backgrounds are faced with the choice between a rock and a hard place—in which case the philosophers’ advice would do little to alleviate their situation. But for those who have the privilege of choosing between two (or more) options that are “on par” with one another, Chang’s advice could certainly come in handy. Her suggestion is that we make use of these moments in our lives to cultivate the people that we want to be and to stand up for the things that we want to stand for.
Of course, there is the case when making a decision is hard because, no matter what we choose, our action is going to have a negative impact on the universe. For some people, even deciding what to have for breakfast has become a crippling affair: should I drink cow milk with my cereal, knowing full well that the dairy industry is causing havoc on our delicate atmosphere—not to mention the suffering that the process can cause to the animals? Or should I drink almond milk, which was initially ailed as a harmless substitute but has since been found to negatively impact drought-stricken California, where the large majority of the world’s almonds are grown?
Whenever it comes to suffering, my impulse is to turn to the Buddhist teachings, which can make an overwhelming decision more straightforward: choose the path of least suffering. In the case of cow milk vs. almond milk, I could measure the pros and cons of both and, if one outcome outweighs the other in terms of causing the least suffering, pick that one. If after practicing this exercise it remains unclear which leads to the path of least suffering—if both options remain “on par” with one another—my advice is to just pick one. Put an end to the decision-making headaches, remove that second arrow and ease your own suffering. After all, being able to choose is in itself a gift that is worthy of celebration, joy and gratitude.