When I was a very small child, my life was easy to understand. I was my father’s son. I adored him and wanted to be like him. And I needed him to be proud of me.
I wanted and needed my mother’s love and attention. I saw myself as a tiny protector for my younger sisters. Nobody actually told me these things about myself. This was simply an acceptable role for a little boy in my culture. It was my identity.
As I grew up, I added bits and pieces to my identity. Without realizing it, I was choosing from a limited menu consisting of what my culture believed was acceptable. Bit by bit, I developed a definite identity.
I knew who I was. I knew where I belonged. A lot of things were wrong in my life as I grew up, but I firmly understood my place in this world.
Eventually, I broadened my view of myself and who I was. I became someone whose identity diverged more and more from what traditional culture considered acceptable. I made choices which would have once seemed unimaginable to me, but which had come to be acceptable by the culture.
And I’m left with a seeming contradiction. I’ve found a wonderful array of choices which previous generations never had. I’ve had freedom to make my life into things which cultural norms would have prevented for my grandfather or great-grandfather.
But those choices I’ve had — the choices I’ve made for myself — have also taken me further and further from the cultural grounding which gave their lives stability and meaning. And I’m not certain whether my life is better or worse than the lives of those who lived before such choices were possible.
We celebrate choice today. We treat it as an obvious good thing that we have the freedom to decide all sorts of things for ourselves. I’ve always assumed that choice was good. I still believe — at least in the abstract — that it’s better than the alternative.
But I’ve been wondering lately if many of us were better off when we had fewer feasible choices. When we knew who we were. When we were more certain of our place in this world. When each of us understood our place in a culture — and felt secure enough to play the role we had inherited.
I’m not suggesting that some authority — government, religion, tribe, whatever — should go back to dictating how everybody lives. I’m merely suggesting that there has been an imperceptible tradeoff. I’m suggesting that as we’ve all rushed to make such wildly individualistic choices, we might have lost a system which gave each of us a sense of grounding and identity.
There was a time when a typical man of my culture would have lived in a pretty defined sort of way. I would have married young and had children quickly. As an upper middle-class American man, I would have educated myself and gotten a job that would provide for my family. Maybe I would have started a business. My wife would have stayed home to raise our children.
We would have been solid citizens who were at church services on Sundays and Wednesdays. We would have done social activities with our neighbors and with people from our own families.
There were roles for different types of people to play. Some men were the outlaws. Others were the “good guys” who stuck to the straight and narrow. And others were rule-breakers at heart — and who did break rules behind closed doors — while they pretended to live a life on the straight and narrow.
But the roles available — to both men and women — were widely understood. Even if someone might chafe in the role he had inherited for himself, he felt grounded. He knew who he was and where he stood.
Today, we have choices about almost everything. Society has become so liberal — not in the political sense but the sense of accepting others’ choices — that we feel free to make choices that defy the boxes which might have constrained us in previous generations.
In a lot of ways, this is liberating. We’re free. Nobody controls us. We do what we want.
But I’m finding that it comes at a price. If leaves us without a defined sense of identity. It leaves us without a firm grasp on where we stand in the world. And it often leaves us without the community and family bonds which used to make us feel grounded.
We used to know what a marriage was supposed to be. There were understood cultural norms (which varied between cultures), and most people conformed to some version of what was expected.
Today, we’re not sure whether we’re marrying a best friend or a sex partner or a parent for ourselves. We can ignore all of the previous norms and make up our own rules. We can even decide that marriage means we’re going to sleep around with others without guilt. We might even bring in additional partners and call it “polyamory.”
I want people to have the civil and political freedom to make choices which are completely different from what their culture tells them. I don’t want to go back to a day when we literally had no practical choice. There were many, many terrible things about such a system.
But gaining this freedom of choice has come at a terrible price. The longer I live, the more I want to make choices which are more traditional — choices which will give me a more firm identity and a more firm sense of my place in this world.
Maybe part of me wants it both ways. I’m not sure.
The only thing I know for certain is that the cultural freedom which I love and celebrate has come at a tremendous cost. And I’m starting to think that many of us would be happier if we were more traditional and more conservative in our cultural choices.
Choice is a good thing. The result of choice can be a miserable thing. And that’s the uncomfortable paradox of choice. We deserve freedom of choice, but we would sometimes be far better off without it.