An Overwhelming Age

In one of my psychology classes in university I remember learning that one famous psychologist suggested an interesting correlation when it came to freedom and happiness. I tried to look up who it was, but I wasn’t able to settle the matter with any certainty. My best guess is that it was Erich Fromm.

Anyway, the idea was that while having no freedom leads to unhappiness, too much freedom can as well. We feel powerless when we don’t get to make any choices for ourselves, but we also begin to feel overwhelmed and distressed when we have too many choices. This idea has stuck with me ever since.

I truly believe that in our modern age, most of the world has started to experience that unhappiness due to too much freedom. Never before in history have we each had so many individual choices to make each and every moment of every day. We are constantly being advertised to, we have twenty or more different options for each product we need to purchase at the store, and we have an unlimited number of options when it comes to the internet which is now an integral part of our everyday lives.

I personally feel paralyzed with indecision on a daily basis. And it has certainly only become worse as society and technology has progressed in my lifetime. I am mentally exhausted from weighing endless choices. Most of the time all I can do is try to shut it all out and do nothing. I used to think this was solely due to my anxiety disorder, but it does provide some comfort to know that this effects everyone to some extent.

It brings to mind a quote by Sylvia Plath that has always deeply resonated with me:

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

I have felt this way all of my life, yet never could have created such a splendidly perfect metaphor. I am not sure what we as a society can do to address this problem though. It certainly seems wrong for the government or some other entity to limit people’s freedoms in order to protect them from being overwhelmed by choices. But I do often long to have been born in simpler times. While I am grateful for all the freedom I have, I am also somewhat fearful of it.

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