Why Choice is Our Biggest Conflict – an Essay by Alex MacLean


I know if I had complete freedom of choice, I would eat chocolate and drink wine all day long. I would smoke a lot of cigarettes and leave my bed less. I would say no to more networking events. I would quit part-time jobs I didn’t like. And I would tell people they were annoying me. I would figure out exactly what it was I felt like doing at that exact moment and do it.

Right now however, I’m deciding between walking to go pick up a winter jacket I have on hold, going downstairs to give my landlady the rent check, or getting ready to help my friend paint a café he’s opening. Instead of doing any of these things, I’m lying in my bed and writing. Probably because this is actually what I want to be doing rather that what I feel like I should be doing.

Choices are both the bane of our existence and the things that help us feel liberated. They define who we are and what we want and dictate our entire experience of life. They give us pleasure, a sense of accomplishment and ease and allow us to form friendships and goals. They can also ruin us, eat us up and keep us from getting what we want.  The trouble with choices is that oftentimes, they’re confusing. What we want long term is in conflict with what we want in the moment. Our desires change from week to week, hour to hour and second to second. Although it seems like it should be easy to make choices that make us feel happy and good and connect us with who we are, the trouble is these choices can also elicit guilt, or when carried out to their fruition can be the “right choice” but also cause us to harbor resentment. Oftentimes it can feel like we’re living in a limbo between what we want and what we need. And sometimes, the distinction between want and need is unclear.

Last week I decided to listen to my mother. I ate kale everyday and didn’t drink. I took dance classes and went to bed early and limited my consumption of caffeine. I barely spent any money and helped anyone who asked me to. I read books instead of watching TV and only said kind things to and about people. By the end of the week, I was exhausted.

The next week was spent in a debauchery. I went to friends’ houses and drank gallons of wine. I stayed out late at shows and talked to people on the street over yet more alcohol despite having work the next day. I ate cake for dinner and drank coffee past 9 pm. I didn’t wash a single dish and ended up sending Facebook messages that I really wish I hadn’t sent.  By the end of the week, I was also exhausted.

After the end of two weeks, I realized that I’d been conducting an experiment on the consequences of compulsive behavior versus disciplined behavior. How do we feel when we give in to our immediate desires versus delaying gratification?  Do we create a better internal state when we do what we feel we should do rather than what we want to do? Which state of being reaps a happier existence?

In dance, it’s common knowledge that extreme discipline leads to freedom. When your body and mind are disciplined through countless hours of hard work and practice, you can do things with ease and grace. You can think less, use less effort, and generally, work less hard. The discipline that one puts in at the beginning creates something that can bring immense joy in the long run. Technique, in essence, creates efficiency. This is something that dancers understand from a young age. You go to bed early, eat the right foods and get the necessary amount of rest because the joy you get from creating this ease is greater than the joy you get from giving into immediate impulses. The choice seems easy.

General art, however, although also broadly a result of discipline, encourages messiness. Art allows more of a connection to life for inspiration, for failure and mishaps and staying up late and having conversations with people on the street even when you have work the next day. It thrives off of connections with feelings and moods and the ability to give in to them, to be in touch with them and know what they are. For doing and feeling and saying exactly what you want to say rather than what you should say. Although the completion of any project will always take discipline, the start of it, and also the body, is often comprised of the moments when we weren’t thinking about making the “right” choice, but rather the choice that for whatever reason, we feel we need to make.  Art, in essence, should help erase this internal conflict.

Dance, in many ways, was like the week of listening to my mother’s advice.  And the week of aimless pleasure could’ve been a bit more like the desire to find inspiration in the chaos. To be an artist, or a human, however, maybe we need both. To have a grace and fluidity in the way we live that’s in line with our core beliefs and long term desires, and to give in to our childlike impulses to feel good in that moment. To know exactly what it is that you want to do and to get carried away by it. To have passion.

I’m often in awe of how connected kids are to exactly what choices they want to make.  They have a clear idea of what they want to do and oftentimes the only thing standing in their way is their parents. While they eat boxes of cookies and play video games for hours, they’re not entrapped by the adult ideas of the future, their health, vitamin D, social expectations, achievement and appearances. They are simply driven by their desires in the moment and don’t experience the internal conflict that adults often do when making choices. They rely on adults to free them from this burden and to make the “right” choices for them. As children grow, the voice of their parents and teachers usually becomes the voice in their head, helping them to determine the choices they make. “Eat healthy, do your homework, go to bed, play nice, don’t do drugs, etc., etc…” As kids grow however, they may experience the intense conflict of still wanting to give in to their immediate desires while struggling to listen to the voices of grownups. Also, individuality of choice is what makes someone an individual, so how can one ensure their individuality without simply making prescribed choices?  Kids often experience pure bliss because they’re so connected to what they want and who they are. That voice in their head that so many of us have lost due to socialization is the only voice they have.

When I was a kid I used to run around naked in my front yard. One summer when I went home I found pictures of a younger version of me running around in my birthday suit in front of my garden with a long braid down my back. I was horrified and asked my mom why she would let me expose myself to the neighborhood. She simply laughed and told me that I was so willful in my need to run around naked in the front yard that she decided, that for whatever reason, I just had to. And if the neighbors weren’t okay with a naked two year old then that was their problem, not ours. Just like that, the conflict had been resolved I was happy, she was happy, and the only people who may not have been happy were the neighbors.

So maybe the best way to make choices and ease this conflict is to ask ourselves what we want in the long run, what do we want in the short term, and what do we want right now? How can we combine the three? What do we want that won’t harm us later on? What level of harm are we willing to deal with? Maybe a bottle of wine can help us open up to someone. Maybe chocolate will help us get over a breakup. Maybe lying in bed all-day and writing is what you need to do. Maybe staying up all night on a project is OK. Maybe we should all eat more kale and also give in to a desire to be disciplined or be willing to deal with the consequences of regret when we take risks. Happiness is not found in a bottle of doing everything the right way with perfect consistency. Maybe we can all be artists and children of some sort and work towards the things we want while also doing the things that we need to do. Walking around with this constant feeling of internal conflict isn’t fun. Maybe it would help to spend a bit more time naked.


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