Too much choice?

I’m currently reading War and Peace by Tolstoy. A good read – once you get over the first couple of hundred paged you can really get into it.

The main character, Pierre, spends most of the book trying to find meaning in his life. He is a wealthy landowner, a count with thousands of serfs working under him. He owns several estates and seemingly has the world at his fingertips. But in many ways he is lost and looking for direction. Initially, he can’t decide what to do with his life, then he dedicates himself to trying to make the lives of his peasants better. Stuck in a bad marriage, he then looks into Freemasonry for the answers, but his satisfaction there is only short lived. He then joins the war effort, seeing a battle first hand (but not joining in) and then convinces himself that he needs to assassinate Napoleon when he comes to invade Moscow.

It is here that Pierre gets captured by French troops and is held in a prison camp for  four weeks. Tolstoy writes:

Here and now for the first time he fully appreciated the enjoyment of eating when he wanted to eat, drinking when he wanted to drink, sleeping when he wanted to sleep, of warmth when he was cold, of talking to a fellow-man when he wished to talk and to hear a human voice. The satisfaction of one’s needs – good food, cleanliness and freedom – now that he was deprived of all this, seemed to Pierre to constitute perfect happiness; and the choice of occupation, that is, of his way of life – now that choice was so restricted – seemed to him such an easy matter that he forgot that a superfluity of the comforts of life destroys all joy in satisfying one’s needs, whilst great freedom in the choice of occupation – such freedom as his wealth, his education, and his social position had given him in his own life – is just what makes the choice of occupation insolubly difficult, and destroys the desire and possibility of having an occupation. (p1116)

It is only when he gets captured and his choices are severely limited does Pierre find satisfaction in his life. He doesn’t have to worry about what to do next week, or next year, because he doesnt’ have the options to do it. All be becomes worried with is having his basic needs of food, sleep, warmth and friendship, met.

I see this paralysis of choice in this generation (18-30) too. When I left university I didn’t have a clue what do do with my life and it took a number of years to figure it out. I see similar things in many school- and university-leavers today – there is such a vast array of options (which is good) that many are almost paralysed by the choice and are unable to make a good decision or fear there may have been a better one. This wasn’t so with our parents. Their life choices were much more limited. Many people stayed in the family business or line of work. if your father was a farmer, in most cases you would be a farmer. Today it is quite different with many more opportunities. This hasn’t led to the perfect freedom that was hoped, but still a sense of paralysis and in some cases, dissatisfaction.

This choice itself is not a bad thing, but the inability to live in the now and appreciate what is immediately around, as Pierre was, leaves an empty hole. People don’t want choice in everything. The New Labour government in Tony Blair promised choice for the consumer in schools, hospitals and many other things. In these, people don’t want choice because the choice leaves us bewildered. People actually simply want good schools and hospitals and then they don’t need to make a choice! Then we are more able to appreciate the basic things of life that are necessary and are all around us, and ultimately we’ll be more fulfilled.


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