Tuesday, April 19, 2005


We live in a world of choice. Everywhere we turn we are assaulted by a multitude of choices. For the discriminating grocery shopper, an endless array of salad dressings, breakfast cereals and toilet paper awaits. On TV, there are hundreds of cable channels to entertain us. Or try painting your house; you’d be amazed how many shades of white there actually are. Even the banal act of ordering a coffee can become an overwhelming decision. Was that a grande decaf skim latte, or a venti soy chai?

However, these are ersatz choices. Yes, we often expend a great deal of energy on these minor decisions . That’s because we live in a culture of consumerism, surrounded by billions of dollars of advertising designed to convince us that meaningless minutiae matter. And while it’s nice to have the option, in reality it makes no difference at all if you paint your house in “winter white” or “white dove”.

There is a popular belief in free will, based on our own perceptions of freedom of choice. However, many philosophers argue that in reality, there is no free will. To prove this, they note how most people’s lives are extremely predictable, and their actions never stray far from the routine. While we might imagine we have the free will to choose a particular flavor of ice cream, in the end, whether you pick vanilla or chocolate, you will still be the same old person. And for the most part, people don’t change all that much.

Real choices change lives. If there is free will, (and it is a fundamental Jewish belief), it isn’t about petty, meaningless decisions. We encounter free will in the real choices in life: Will I break those old bad habits, or remain mired in mediocrity? Will I transform, or will I remain the same as I was, is, and always will be?

We can make real choices all the time. Dozens of times each day, we decide whether we will transcend the mediocre and act with genuine character. Even small gestures like stopping to shake a hand can be real choices, a small step on the road to personal growth.

Unfortunately, we are so bogged down by a multitude of phony, ersatz choices, that we often overlook the real choices we have to make. We worry about the best; the best handbag, the best watch, the best power tie. What about the best character?

In the documentary 9-11 ,which is about firehouse near Ground Zero, the producers ask one of the firefighters why he chose his career. He answered:

“I wanted to be able to wake up in the morning and look at myself in the mirror, and say I’m doing something with my life”.

The next time you shop for paint, think about that fireman. And while it’s nice to have a kaleidoscope of colors to choose from, remember that “mocha brown” is not a real choice.

A real choice is when you decide to actually do something with your life.

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