I demolish my bridges behind me—then there is no choice but forward.
~ Fridtjof Nansen ~
Compare a cup of coffee—the way it tastes and makes you feel—to the sensation of sitting alone in an open-air convertible automobile on an isolated overlook, gazing at the beauty of the endless waters of the Pacific Ocean. The idea of comparing two such radically different experiences is absurd, of course. But is it? If we consider each component of experience, separately, the absurdity of the idea of comparison lessens.
Coffee’s bitterness in the mouth, versus the salty sweetness of the ocean breeze. The smell of the ocean air, versus the aroma of coffee in the nose. The impenetrable near-blackness of the coffee versus the blue and green water against pink swirls of color of the horizon. The warmth of the coffee cup in your hand versus the cool Pacific breeze against your face. The hardness of the coffee cup versus the softness of the upholstered seats of the car.
It is possible to compare two seemingly unrelated experiences vis-à-vis the consideration of each element of their elements, separately. And, if one can compare two experiences, one can compare four. Or forty. Or four hundred. The intricacies of the observations will of course grow to the point of almost impossible complexity, but the comparisons will, nonetheless, be informative.
Comparisons that, on the surface, seem absurd, form the basis of all our life choices. The choices and the comparisons between them are almost innumerable. I suspect the confusion most people face—when given the luxury of options—in making decisions about schooling and career paths and marriage and a host of other major life events arises from the difficulty in making and assessing comparisons. They ask themselves, “what are my choices and how do I decide between them?” Enumerating the options, though complex in itself, is far simpler than evaluating the options.
A teenager approaching high school graduation may face choices between going to college or securing a job or attending trade school or entering an apprenticeship program or taking a summer or a year off, among many others. For each option, she may have to consider dozens or hundreds of corollaries; if college, what about living arrangements? Dorm? Apartment? Co-op? Staying at home? And for each of those, another set of considerations: Roommate(s)? Eating arrangements? Costs and covering expenses? And within each of those, still more comparisons and subsequent decisions.
Every single aspect of one’s life involves comparisons between experiences that may seem utterly unrelated but which, somewhere deep at their core, are inextricably connected. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on one’s perspective), it is rare for us to be taught how to break down prospective experiences into their component parts and to compare each of those elements. Instead, we are given hints and clues as to what life may offer and sent off into the world to seek out options and process them, converting our decisions into experiential wisdom. Some people refuse to let mere chance dictate our futures, insisting on following paths that limit our choices but offer predictable long-term outcomes. Others of us stumble into circumstances that sustain us, purely by accident. And some people trip and fall, only to pick ourselves up repeatedly until they find an adequate, if not especially desirable, niche. And still others never learn how to differentiate between choices, always making decisions that seem always to be self-destructive.
You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still, and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.
~ Franz Kafka ~
The practice of comparing options and making decisions based on those comparisons is by no means limited to kids entering young adulthood. It applies equally to every stage of life, all the way to very end, up to and including choices about how to live out one’s final years. At some point, though, I suppose making choices becomes more trouble than their outcome is worth. I suspect it becomes easier and more satisfying to just go with the flow. And perhaps that’s the easiest and best way to begin the process, as well. Take what comes, come what may.
Perhaps the example comparing a cup of coffee with sitting in a top-down convertible is too complex to be a useful lesson. Maybe there is no way to prepare for life but to live it and hope for the best. The example, which in large part omits any consideration of consequences, may be inadequate for that very reason. Who knows. I certainly don’t.