Megan Nicol Reed is a columnist for Canvas magazine.

Megan Nicol Reed: How much choice do we really have?

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Each week Megan Nicol Reed talks through what’s on all of our minds.
Through the choices we make it is expected we will create a better life for ourselves, become the best version of ourselves. Photo / Getty Images
Through the choices we make it is expected we will create a better life for ourselves, become the best version of ourselves. Photo / Getty Images

What horribly contrary beasts we are. How irked I am, seething in my seat with a soft fury, if someone presumes to order for me. But at a restaurant the other night I quickly read through the menu and then shut it closed with a joyous kind of a snap. As a vegetarian, my decision was made for me. I knew neither my usual angst nor envy, only relief. There was one entree I could eat, one main. I would have the beetroot to start, the pappardelle to follow, thanks very much.

Freedom of choice is the bedrock of modern Western society; and only a fool would prefer an autocracy to a democracy. To choose, we believe, is our prerogative; and what we choose defines us. Accordingly the choices available to us, urged upon us, have proliferated. So many possible outcomes requiring so much deliberation. Will we send our children to the local school or, and even though the Pope has no bearing on our daily life, will we send them to the Catholic school? Will we assuage our guilt by giving $20 to the charity working to free women from the bondage of prostitution in Cambodia or the one providing deprived Kiwi kids with new pyjamas? Through the choices we make it is expected we will create a better life for ourselves, become the best version of ourselves.

Increasingly, though, when faced with the pressure to make the right choice - that of all the jeans in the shop I will have the nous to choose the cut that accentuates my arse and minimises my belly, that wavering between mindfully acknowledging the impermanence of my anger and burying it in a packet of Tim Tams, I will be wise and choose the former - an awful lethargy settles over me; the inertness of the doubtful.

In her book, The Tyranny of Choice, the Slovenian sociologist Renata Salecl writes: "The idea of choosing who we want to be and the imperative to 'become yourself' have begun to work against us, making us more anxious and more acquisitive rather than giving us more freedom."

I asked you last week for your thoughts on this ideology of choice, whether, perhaps, it is the cause of a greater dissatisfaction. I expected to hear from one or two free market apostles, championing the choices inherent to a competitive economy. Instead there was Ruth, who said, "If I go to buy a new 'anything' I generally like the first 'anything' I see, but force myself to visit many other shops to see what they have in stock because I might find 'something' I like better than the first 'anything' I saw." I can relate. Recently I visited a different farmers' market to my local, offering far less variety than I am used to. There was one stall selling cheese, one selling bread and so forth, and at first I was dismayed by the dearth of options. But, I realised, after I had made my purchases, that uncomplicated by my usual dithering and fear of regret, by my need to check out and tick off every alternative, the simplicity of my experience had rendered it all the more pleasurable.

I expected I might hear from one or two self-styled philosophers but hadn't counted on Jill, who says there is only one choice that actually matters. "Where are you, your personality, the real you, going to be after you stop breathing on this earth?" Bev's concerns, while weighty, were slightly less celestial in nature. Bev had her children in the 1970s and resented she had no choice other than to give up work and become a stay-at-home mum, and yet now worries for her son and daughter-in-law's first child, who will go into daycare aged 4 months, because, financially, they feel they have no choice. "They have what we wanted but there still seems to be no choice," she writes.

I didn't expect to hear from a poet. I'm not sure that I understand in its entirety the poem Kenny J wrote and shared with me. I was taken though by these lines, and wondered if, in a nutshell, therein lies the truth. "Choices that would give me freedom / Bind with chains that I select."

- Canvas

Please do write: megannicolreed@gmail.com

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Megan Nicol Reed is a columnist for Canvas magazine.

There were many things Megan Nicol Reed imagined she would do in her journalism career. She ticked off feature writer, editor and columnist. She never envisaged agony aunt. Now, when she isn't trying to sort out her own life, she's trying to sort yours. And when she's not doing that she is writing her first novel. In her downtime you'll find her mothering, cooking, running, cleaning and reading. Needless to say she spends much of her life in activewear.

Read more by Megan Nicol Reed

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