Last night I purchased the US News and World Report’s “America’s Best Graduate Schools,” because I find myself in the position of re-thinking my choice of law school and location. I despised the first process of choosing a school and now, scouring the rankings and lists, I remember why. The categories and numbers all seem completely irrelevant to my life and give me so little information that I am pretty much reduced to considering schools based on a numerical assignment from #1 to #184. I feel panic creeping in about trying to get into the “best” school out of the bunch. Yet, is number 45 that much better than number 61? And, what’s the difference between schools when we are all going to be lawyers in the end, right?
In my Contracts class this semester we discussed Williams v. Walker-Thomas Furniture Co. For the most part, Contract law asserts that people are the best judges of their own interest, but in this case a single Mom on welfare got into a terrible contract for an overpriced stereo. (Think PayDay loans.) The court ended up saying essentially that there may be some circumstances where a category of people is not acting in their own best interest & perhaps they should not be bound by their decisions. This ruling came despite the fact that it may risk eliminating options for those same people it was meant to protect.
My professor brought up the question: “Can you have too many options?” He mentioned that Libertarians would say no, you’re never worse off by having more options. But, that his experience in coming to the U.S. (he’s an Aussie) has made him think that YES you can. The danger of too many choices is spending 1/2 your life just trying to decide what it is you want in life.
When Neil came to the U.S. on his own for the first time to attend University, after 14 years in Kenya, he said he experienced a very strange culture shock. He would walk into a store and be paralyzed by the multitudes of choices. After the simplicity of shopping in Nairobi, it was just too much to choose between 87 brands of breakfast cereal. It struck him with fear & sadness to see so much waste, and so much wasted energy put into obtaining it.
I feel like in our consumer society we are driven to have narrower and narrower preferences, always being urged to choose between good & better. Distracted by meaningless choices, say single breasted or double breasted suits, we are never forced to make consequential choices between taking or giving, participating or dissenting, or just plain how best to use our time to serve others. WE HAVE NO TIME partly due to the fact that we are always choosing, scouring, agonizing and that takes up an overwhelming chunk of our lives. It often fosters a perpetual discontent with which we have learned to be satisfied.
One of my friends has a small child. The first time I went to her house I was taken aback by the sheer amount of toys in the place. Literally every floor space that was not used as a path for connecting rooms was covered in toys. Small toys, large toys, complicated toys, soft/ fuzzy toys, electronic toys. It was like a giant neighborhood garage sale of child-fantasy loot. The small tot was running from toy to toy spending about 30 seconds at each while simultaneously watching a Disney cartoon. He would “play” with one toy only long enough to then be distracted by another. And so on.
Contrast this with the kids I met while teaching English in Thailand. Their school had just been wiped out by the Tsunami & so they were in outdoor classrooms. Many of the kids where orphans, and very poor. We would come to class (not speaking a word of Thai) and teach them for an hour or two. Sometimes up to three if the next teacher did not show up (which happened more often than you’d think). They paid rapt attention to us the entire time. We would play games like “Simon Says,” and it seemed like they would NEVER get tired of it. We brought a Frisbee to recess one day and we all played with it together like it was the best invention ever & it was no big deal that we were sharing it between 40 of us. My class at Bang Saak Elementary had not been taught that life is a vending machine and although it’s hard to choose, whatever you pick, you get. Their choices were simple: play with the Frisbee or play in the dirt. But, these kiddos had zest for life and truly incredible imaginations.
The solution our current opulence of options not necessarily having other people limit the pool from which we have to choose, but perhaps for us to seek to simplify our lives and to see many of our choices for what they are: inconsequential and perhaps not worth the agony we pour into them.
After all, we’re all going to be lawyers someday anyway, right?