Freedom is about being able to make your own choices in life instead of having them made for you. It’s being able to eat what you want, go where you want, and wear what you want. Your life is up to YOU. I hate freedom.
I’m one of those people who can’t make a decision to save her life. I bow to my friends to choose what movies we’re going to watch. When asked to pick a restaurant, I name the places I won’t go, and make the person asking pick from the remaining options. Shopping is the worst—I go to the store to buy socks, and I leave empty-handed because among the plain white socks alone there are ankle socks and bobby socks and about three identical-looking brands with different prices. Is the expensive one more comfortable? What brand are those socks of mine that are all covered in holes? ALL I WANT IS A PAIR OF SOCKS, AND I CAN’T HANDLE ALL THESE CHOICES.
This runs in my family. I was once part of an argument over which take-out restaurant to order from that lasted two hours. And we lived in Middle of Nowhere, Ohio, so the choice was basically pizza, wings, or fried chicken. When I’m alone, I’ve been known to go hungry rather than settle on what I want to make for dinner.
This is stupid. I know that, in the grand scheme of things, where we choose to eat on Tuesday is not a big deal. But if I don’t have a strong opinion, I don’t want to choose. There’s a feeling of security when other people make the decisions. What if I pick a place and we have a horrible time? It would be ALL MY FAULT. I like knowing that someone else can take the blame if things go wrong. Bad movie? Late pizza delivery? Got lost on the way to the bowling alley? Hey, I didn’t make the plans.
My parents made the decision for me to have my jaw operated on when I was 14. I was rather averse to letting someone GO IN MY MOUTH WITH SCALPELS AND TAKE APART MY JAW, but I knew it had to be done, and I was relieved that my parents were legally allowed to arrange this. If I’d been 18, I would have had to make that scary decision all by myself, and I probably would have chickened out.
This was around the time I realized that I couldn’t keep pawning my choices off on other people. After my surgery, my mom told me how scared she was that something would go wrong and how she would have blamed herself, because she knew I didn’t want it. And suddenly I realized how unfair I’d been, letting other people take responsibility while avoiding any myself.
But knowing that doesn’t make choices any easier. Some choices are easier than others, even if they stress you out at the time. If I just closed my eyes and grabbed a pair of socks off the shelf, I’d probably be fine with them. And even scary medical decisions, like jaw surgery, make sense if your doctors say it’s the best option for you. But sometimes you have to make monumental, life-changing decisions with no clear answer. And that’s hard for anyone.
My first huge decision was choosing where to go to college. When I was a sophomore in high school, I knew I wanted to become a marine biologist, so I zeroed in on the University of Miami in Florida. Shortly afterwards I admitted to myself that I had no aptitude for lab work and just wanted to play with dolphins. So I put this dream to rest, but I looked at Miami’s brochure anyway. And then I made an amazing discovery: they offered a major in CREATIVE WRITING.
I had no idea such a thing existed. It was PERFECT. I could go to college and spend four years doing what I loved, and I wouldn’t have to make a career decision, because “creative writing” doesn’t exactly force you into a profession like “education” or “accounting.”
(Side note: this is not an example of a good choice. I don’t regret choosing a major I loved, but if I did it all over again, I’d double-major in something practical, because creative writing doesn’t easily lead to a career, and that first year after graduation involved a lot of ramen and tears.)
The surprising thing is that my parents totally supported my choice, probably out of amazement that I had actually MADE a choice. But then came the hard part. I had to pick the perfect school or else I’d spend four years being miserable, and the rest of my life would be ruined. It’s kind of funny to me now that I didn’t put any weight on my choice of majors—which would impact my future—but picking the “perfect school” felt like a life or death situation. I turned researching colleges into a career, becoming an expert on the rankings, dorm life, and application process of every college in Ohio and western Pennsylvania. I pictured myself at each of these schools and imagined what my life would be like: doing service work at Allegheny, eating at Ashland’s famous dining hall, hanging out in Bowling Green’s student union. It was like choosing a pair of socks, but these were socks that I was going to have to wear for a long time, so they had better be the BEST SOCKS in the world. It never occurred to me that, like socks, I would probably be comfortable and happy no matter what school hoodie I was wearing.
After visiting about a dozen schools and applying to four, I eventually narrowed it down to two. One was a very small college close to home. The campus had a community feel, and I loved every minute of my visits from the courses I sat in on to the dorm life (although I was both amused and alarmed by a sign in the bathroom stalls that read “Give people in the shower a shout before flushing”). They might not have had the best facilities, but you knew the people there were going to be down-to-earth.
The other school, surrounded by miles and miles of cornfields, was the opposite. It was expensive and far from home. Every visit was horrible in a unique way. Visit number one was a summertime tour where all the buildings were locked, and we had to peek in the window while our guide explained what was inside. Visit number two was an overnight stay where I ended up “sleeping” in a sorority house. This was how I learned that sorority girls literally don’t sleep (probably a stereotype, but it was true for this house). They would lay down for five minutes, then get up and get on their computers, then lay down for another five minutes, then get up to examine a birthday cake some girl was carrying around at 2 AM, and then they’d run around the halls and laugh and yell and everyone seemed to be shocked that I was lying on the futon SLEEPING in the middle of the night. This did not turn me off of the school, but I didn’t ever consider joining a sorority after that. On visit number three, I attended a scholarship competition in a skirt and open-toed dress shoes when a freak blizzard rolled into town. The campus was known for its large open spaces, and I just hoped my interviewers were impressed with my extreme dedication to their school in the face of frostbite and hypothermia.
Despite all this, the school had an amazing English department, tiny enough for that community feel, but big enough to have FIVE publications. It was pretty much exactly what I was looking for, but the campus just didn’t “fit” with me like the small school did.
How was I to choose? Small school with great people and atmosphere, or expensive school with an awesome English program? As it turned out, my interviewers did take pity on me and my cold toes and gave me a scholarship that actually made the second school cheaper.
I thought about it, then decided to listen to my gut. I told my parents I wanted to go to the small, homey (and now more expensive) college. They told me no. That’s right, I made a HUGE decision all by myself, and they SHOT ME DOWN. The university had better facilities and programs, they said, and I’d get all that for less money.
I was a little grumpy about it at the time, but they were totally right. I ended up going to Ohio Northern University, and it turned out to be WAY BETTER than the tours (except for those winters). Is there any wonder why I don’t trust myself to make my own choices? Everyone else is SO MUCH SMARTER. Or at least it seems that way at times. (And if I’d hated ONU, I could have always blamed my parents!)
At one point during my sophomore or junior year, I became burnt out from all the important choices college students have to make—picking courses, minors, extra-curriculars, internships, careers—and told my (very feminist) college roommate that I kind of wished I’d been born in the past, at a time when I wouldn’t actually have any choices and would just have to do what men told me to do. She gave me a very disappointed look and basically told me to think about what I’d just said.
So I did. And I realized how many choices I have made in my life, hard choices that led to great things. I gave into my desire to be a vegetarian, and I’ve been happily meatless for six years now. I chose to follow my passion and become a writer. I chose to listen to my parents when they made wise decisions about my health. Being able to decide my own future is a gift, even if it’s an intimidating one.
And you know what? As scary as making the wrong choice is, it’s important to screw up sometimes too. Decisions are hard for me because I always think of the worst possible outcome. But usually when things turn out badly, it’s not actually that big of a deal. For instance, I wanted to see Edgar Allen Poe’s house and gravesite while I was in Baltimore for a summer and convinced a friend to come with me, which was pretty much the only time I made a plan that entire summer. We got on the wrong bus and ended up in a run-down part of town, and when we asked a police officer for help he just vaguely pointed in the direction of where a bus stop should be, but wasn’t. This is basically my worst fear, and I’ve missed lots of interesting opportunities in the past because I was afraid of getting lost. But my friend and I walked around until we found a bus stop and we eventually made it to Edgar Allen Poe’s house and IT WAS AWESOME.
Most of the time, the consequences of a wrong choice aren’t that bad! Sitting through a boring movie isn’t the end of the world. Your friends/family/acquaintances are not going to harass you for the rest of your life if one decision led to a lackluster outing. (If it’s disastrous enough, it actually becomes a better story!)
And making choices is empowering. It shows that you’re a person who knows what she wants and is determined to reach for it. It took me a long time to trust my decision-making skills, but eventually I made some choices ALL ON MY OWN. I chose to move out of my parents’ house and work towards a career in nonprofits in Washington, D.C., and I survived.
So fellow choice-avoiders, there is hope. Have faith in yourself. And respect the wisdom of others. Sometimes they’re right. ♦