Life is full of choices. Just go to the drive-thru window at McDonalds and order a “fat-burger.” You think you know what to order, until the voice on the magic intercom begins asking questions. “Super-size your order?” “What size drink do you want?” “Would you like an apple pie for dessert?” Suddenly, you don’t know what you want. Smugly driving away, you reach in the bag, pull out a compressed fish-parts sandwich instead of a fat-burger. The magic intercom still got it wrong. A trip to McDonalds is a lesson on the meaning of life.
When I arrived in southern Africa, after growing up in America, I learned a lot about choices. I’d go to a grocery store to buy breakfast cereal. Looking at the selection, I’d usually pick cornflakes. Why? I like cornflakes and besides, that was the only selection on the shelves. We were at war in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and the entire world had imposed sanctions against us. Grocery shopping trips where quick and simple. You’d buy what you found available. Most of those choices were fresh, healthy and free of preservatives and chemicals.
Television was simple in Africa, too. We had one channel. Programming began at 6 o’clock in the evening and ended at 10 o’clock. Take it or leave it. If you didn’t like the evening fare, you could always do something really different, such as have a conversation with family or friends. Actually, this activity was usually more entertaining, educational and stimulating. Life was simple.
I could cite dozens of examples of how different life was in Africa, but that’s not my point. I’m talking about making choices. After thirteen years of simple living, I found myself back in America, confronted with an entirely new set of choices. Enter the term, “Culture Shock.”
When I left America, we had thirteen television channels. I came back to 50 cable channels. Now, I have the choice of flipping through five religious programs, an equal number of sports channels (I’m not a sports fan – I don’t know the difference between a baseball goal post and a football bat), a couple of home shopping channels and non-descript local programming. I still can’t find anything I want to watch. The cable company understands human behavior. If I’m busy channel surfing, I won’t recognize my true second option. Cancel their service. I’m part of an endangered species, remembering life before television. If we’d all exercise the cancel service option, we’d have decent programming. See? We only need two options. It’s just a matter of exercising them. Keep life simple. Exit your comfort zone and watch a DVD.
Back here in America, I can go to the grocery store and spend hours in the cereal aisle. There’s more reading on a cereal package than I find at the library. Low fat, low salt, single-serving statistics and a dozen brands of corn flakes. In most instances, I still end up with a box of cornflakes, but I spend a lot more time selecting them. Oh yes, I still end up with something tasting the same as when I had no choices.
That’s enough about my personal state of confusion. Let’s get back to making choices. It seems to me, we’re often bombarded with so many choices we don’t always make intelligent decisions. We merely succumb to input overload, finally grabbing something, whether it’s the best choice or not. We practice this in most aspects of life.
How often do we actually listen to an intelligent debate between political candidates? Are we so busy that we merely rely upon a political endorsement, newspaper editorial or succumb to campaign mudslinging? How often, rather than voting FOR a candidate, do we vote AGAINST a candidate? I’m guilty of that, myself. I’ve voted for the candidate I believed would do the least amount of damage, rather than for a candidate I thought would actually improve our town or nation. I needed an option for, “None of the above.” Locally, a “Meet the Candidates” forum drew 20 residents from a town of over 5,000 people. Did voters actually want to make an intelligent choice, or did we see another example of, “Don’t confuse me with the facts; my mind’s made up?”
In one resolution, voters were given three options from which to choose. None of the choices carried enough votes to pass. Now, voters will opt for a “Yes” or “No” on one of those options in the upcoming election. The field of choice was narrowed to one, thanks to the lack of a real preference. Is this yet another example of having too many choices? Perhaps it is.
We take pride in having so much freedom in all we do. Making choices is an integral part of freedom, if we actually take time to intelligently study choices, before deciding. Unfortunately, most people are too busy earning a living, raising a family and living their daily routine. As such, we allow others to make choices for us through advertising gimmicks, sound bites and slogans. Often, we make our choices based on name recognition, not considering which is the best selection. Confronted with numerous long-distance carrier options for my telephone service, I chose the one with a familiar name. Was it the best option? I don’t know, because I didn’t research the others. I opted for name recognition.
In many instances, we may just have too many choices. We may “think” we have a choice. I didn’t choose the cable television channels I’m offered. Someone else chose them and I can only pick from their selection. If I don’t examine my true options, I’m going to live with the selections of someone else.
Making choices is important, in all aspects of life. Since we have so many opportunities, I think we often fail to intelligently evaluate our options. Sometimes, we’re given too much input to make a fair decision. I’m not a nutritionist; so most of that information on the cornflakes box is worthless to me. I yearn for simpler times. I’d be much happier with quality of choice, rather than quantity. This goes equally for cable television, cornflakes and political candidates.
Stan G. Kain is a freelance writer, staff member of the Magic City Morning Star and syndicated columnist living in central Maine. Stan was a journalist in southern Africa for several years. If you have questions, comments or would like to see “The Other Side of the Story” in your local newspaper, please email Stan.
© Copyright 2003 by Stan G. Kain