hen I first heard the phrase ‘The Tyranny of the Or,” I was delighted. I thought I had found the four words that best described the torment — which plagued me with the phantom pain of needles under my fingernails! — of all the choices available to me. From lovers to what’s for lunch.
Ham? Turkey! Pastrami? With pickles! Actually I’ll just get a salad. Sharp or Extra Sharp? Writer? Editor? Activist? Actress! Makeup artist? Trapeze artist! Paris? Berlin! Oakland? New Orleans? Someplace I don’t even know of? Maybe I should look at a map!
House! Yurt? Apartment? Loft? Petunias in the garden? No, begonias. Actually just herbs. Vacation is coming! Beach? City! Mountains? I should volunteer. With children? With old folks? Do I have enough hobbies? I should better the mind! No, better to better the body. Ballet? Cross-fit? Maybe a marathon! I should bicycle more. Boys? Girls? Everyone?! Husband? Partner. Children? Adoption.
This is all to say that I felt deeply relieved when I heard about The Tyranny of the Or. Someone had finally articulated my awful sense of vertigo. Too much! Too many!
My understanding was wrong however. It seems that Jim Collins (who coined this concept in his 1995 book Built To Last) was actually referring to “the ability to embrace both extremes of a number of dimensions at the same time.” Instead of choosing A or B, we should figure out a way to have both A and B. Or A and B and C and D!
Which in truth just circle me back to the crushing overwhelmingness of choice.
And while everyone else seems to think this is just peachy — they’re walking around dead-high on the notion that the possibilities are just endless! — I’m wondering when the hell I can get off this ride. I’m left feeling dizzy.
Anything associated with the word endless feels…scary! Without boundaries? Without observable confines or even a measly picket fence? Has the world gone mad?!
Endless is a generous offer but no, thank you. I’m not an omniscient sprite peering into the vacuum of space with a calm regard — I’m a frightened, fragile, hairless monkey dodging traffic on the daily and I’m just looking for a quiet place to read a book and eek out my days accruing the least damage possible on this terrifying water planet.
And while we all know the studies — vaguely at least — that remind us that choice is daunting at best and miserable-making at worst (from the seeming minutia of Malcolm Gladwell’s spaghetti research to choosing what to invest your money in), we still posit choice as a proxy for freedom.
Who doesn’t want to be free? It is the highest of our aspirations — for humans and animals alike. We feel obligated to celebrate choice even as it rattles the very cockles of our monkey minds.
As a small but poignant example of this strange phenomenon, I offer up David Myers and Robert Lane’s study at Yale (now a book) which found that while the gross domestic product of the U.S. had doubled over a 30-year period, the proportion of people reporting they felt “very happy,” had decreased by 5%.
That’s about 14 million humans who are less happy than their peers of the past despite aisle after aisle after aisle — literally and metaphysically — of choice.
Now let’s apply this principle to humans. To dating, partnership, and marriage.
I will confess that historically I’ve been a strange breed when it comes to my romantic relationships with men. I fall in love quickly and intensely — I’m a serial monogamist with commitment issues. This isn’t to say I cheat or refuse to be exclusive. Rather I typically reach a three-year mark, feel deeply claustrophobic because I’ve rejected so many choices, and jam my finger against the emergency eject button.
I gulp the lonely air of freedom.
But I’ve realized recently that it’s the language we use to accompany partnership and marriage that has prevented me from taking the proverbial plunge. “I just felt certain,” my drove of now-married friends say. “I just knew,” they tell me.
The language of certainty is part and parcel of how we’ve been taught to conceive of a conventional long-term partnership; without “that feeling” we shouldn’t make “that kind of commitment.”
I don’t feel certain about the dinner I’ve just ordered! Or the the city I live in. Or anything else in my life. I think the notion of being certain is a fallacy.
I think what everyone is actually doing is deciding.
My ex boyfriend and I used to kid that if we grew up in some tiny Italian village circa 1935 we would have been thrilled to have found one another.
I like you SO MUCH MORE than everyone else in this entire village — you’re my age, our body parts fit together in a pleasurable manner and married we shall be! But, we didn’t grow up in an Italian village together; we grew up as middle class white kids in the Northeast where the world was proffered as our goddamn oyster.
We could pair off with any of the 1.3 billion English speaking humans on the planet! So what were the chances that we were each other’s pearls?!
We threw sidelong glances at each other, gently dragging our teeth along one anothers’ skin to see if we were the real thing. My WASPy grandmother had taught me trick to determine a real pearl from a fake.
“Always bite them to be certain Katie.”
On the cusp of my 36th birthday, and knowing I’d like a “life partner,” I started examining the difference between deciding, knowledge and certainty. Does a certain amount of knowledge make up certainty? Is it like Trivial Pursuit and I am gathering experiential slices of pie and once my tray is filled I head over to Kay’s jewelers?
Honestly, I think certainty is closer to faith, a sensation that something feels true. You can be certain that you have cancer, you can be certain you like pecan pie. You can have “certainty” that you’d like this relationship to endure, but you can’t be certain you should be with someone.
Certainty in this sense — this notion of knowing this person is right (as Baron Reed argues in this fascinating paper) is dangerously close to incorrigibility. Like badgers, we can grow dead-set on a particular belief — didn’t I tell you it was like faith?! — which we simply and doggedly won’t give up.
Perhaps there are red flags — you flinch every time they laugh, but hey they don’t laugh that much, or they’re cruel to animals, that labrador did seem a little aggressive — but without more contrary evidence to the wedding bells chiming tinnily in our minds (say, a gruesome murder victim in the attic), we will continue to ignore any evidence that flies in the face of our “certainty.”
American divorce rates, while not as bad as everyone typically says, aren’t great either — the 2010 National Survey of Family Growth found that 50% of all women’s first marriages ended in separation or divorce after 20 years — so we’re aware that our certainty is not in fact certainty, even as we insist, “I’m certain!”
Why is it so terrible to say, “From a great number of fantastic alternatives, we weighed the options and chose each other.”
Why do we have to be certain?
I used to say to the same ex boyfriend (we’ve stayed dear friends by the way which belies some other kind of certainty I suppose) that it was far more romantic to choose each other every day than get married — that way there was never any doubt as to why we were waking up in the same bed.
Our certainty was, in many ways, predicated on the notion that we never had to “prove it” with marriage.
But of course, the absence of marriage as proof of our certainty inevitably reared its strange and sullen head. If we were so certain every morning, why couldn’t we just commit to every morning? Why did that decision feel so…hard?
Even taking into account the more nebulous but potent elements of emotional collateral — our little orange cat Hugo, the intertwined families, the shared car (a Geo Tracker!) and bank accounts — we couldn’t make the decision to be together in that way.
This past Christmas, another two-year relationship ended — I told you, I have some problems — and I’ve recently begun a new one with a man named Adam. We first dated three years ago — pretty casually and usually steeped in very delicious, very strong martinis — but ended up staying friends. But now we’re back in romantic waters — like salmon we’ve returned to the river we once swam together — and in many ways, I feel like I already know him. The current is familiar, easy.
We’re not doing that dance macabre we all do in the beginning — acting like our best, most sparkly or interesting selves in the hopes of glamouring one another into believing you’re wonderful and not a very fragile, frightened hairless monkey who is just dodging traffic and trying to butter their toast in peace.
We’ve just decided to spend a lot of time together. We’re deepening our knowledge. We’re hoping we’ll keep choosing one another.
I am certain that I feel good when he is near and even when annoyed, vaguely charmed — it is something akin to sparklers buried inside a steaming rare steak — and that is perhaps all the certainty any of us can hope for.
Maybe that’s what everyone has been talking about — maybe “certainty” is actually a sensation we’re not willing to live without anymore — but we needed a common word for it.
So we’re left with two trips of the tongue to describe the feeling that fuels our choice of partner.