After spending the first half of my summer gallivanting through Denmark and Scotland, I returned to Southern California and got down to the business of home maintenance. Not a fun transition (I may have wept a tiny bit my first morning waking up here instead of some lovely B&B in Scotland), but a necessary one. Among lots of smaller necessaries that kept my checking account working hard–replacing the water filtration system, fixing my air-conditioner, getting the piano tuned, etc.–the big task of the summer was painting the exterior of my peeling house and rebuilding the rotten fence in the front yard. Or, rather, hiring someone else to do these tasks for me (more checks!).
Choosing paint colors from the hundreds of options spread before me at Home Depot and Lowes made me think of this article I read a while back in The New York Times, which basically says that while the idea of having many options available is appealing to most people, actually having them can lead to paralysis and/or dissatisfaction: we either make no choice because we’re so overwhelmed, or we make a choice and are haunted by the ghost of what-could-have-been-better. My approach for the paint colors was the following:
1. Grab and bring home about 30 color cards to satisfy my American need to feel like I had lots of options (although I will never, ever understand why there are so many shades of white. Why? WHY?)
2. Go through all the cards SUPER FAST and immediately gut-discard about two-thirds of the colors (throwing them away in the nasty outside trash can so I wouldn’t be tempted to dig any back out later), thus narrowing my options into a reasonable amount.
3. Spend the next several days staring at my three color-combo finalists and ask my friends for their input.
Even with all of this, a process more intuitive than systematically planned, the color I (and my friends) thought was the best one turned out to be disappointingly drab and blah in reality. As in, looking at it made me feel like I might need to go back on Prozac. So out came the checkbook again, and the entire house was repainted in Option #2. The one upside is that having seen how bad Option #1 looked, Option #2 seemed pretty great, thus dispelling the ghost of what-could-have-been-better. Option #2 is the “better,” and I have the cash deficit to prove it.
Paint colors aside, I’ve found myself overwhelmed by all the options I’ve been seeing everywhere. As I sat at a red light yesterday, I counted six different restaurant/drive-thru food options in one corner shopping center with another three just across the street. At the next light, there was another slew of options. It made me think longingly of the little towns I drove through in the Scottish Highlands, which typically had about 2-3 food options. There were a few days when I’d drive for long stretches and just find one. Some of the time, the food I’d be served in these places would be really good. Some of the time, it wasn’t. But all of the time I was satisfied, because it came down to the bare bones of me being hungry and this place offering food. I didn’t have the luxury of choosing from multiple options and considering what I was “in the mood for” but I also didn’t have the burden.
Right now, part of my brain is screaming “First world problem!” and there is an awareness of all the people in the world who have no such options and live in the very oppressive reality of being unable to exercise choice over even the most basic things in life. But as someone who does live in the first world and recognizes the glut of options we have in the U.S. as a potentially unhealthy extreme, I’m wrestling with how to live with a little more balance. How to block out and simplify some of those options, not out of ingratitude, but more in a way that makes me fully present to and grateful for whatever it is I do choose.