When did we, as a society, decide that 10,000 choices at every turn was something we wanted? Isn’t life hard enough? I have an anxiety attack every time I have to order at Starbucks, for all the options there are. I always wind up with an iced vanilla latte because I can never remember how to spit it all out.
I recently visited my best friend and her cousins in Louisiana, home of (among other things) the drive-thru daiquiri stand – little meccas of sugar and alcohol where you can cool off and catch a buzz all in one styrofoam cup. No visit of mine to Louisiana has been complete without stopping at one (just one though, even this sugar addict can only handle so much). But, as we drove by one somewhere outside of Lafayette, I was struck dumb by the flavor list. IT TOOK UP THE ENTIRE WALL OF THE STAND. When I say ‘stand’, I’m not talking about a little shack or a food truck. This mother was the size of a 2-car garage. THE ENTIRE WALL. Seriously?? How many flavors of sugar do you possibly need to mask the rail liquor that is really the whole point of the drink? There, in all its excess glory, was the physical embodiment of a society out of control with options. It’s rampant – it’s everywhere!
You can get 400 channels on your TV, not including the 30 options to stream from the internet. Shoe stores the size of a warehouse can’t fit all the possible styles of shoe that exist, but you can certainly find the rest on any number of websites solely dedicated to them.
Restaurant menus are vinyl-bound novellas, with 20 appetizers, 10 different salads, 20 entrees, 14 different ways to have a burger. And the choice of restaurants is infinite. Fast food restaurants alone outnumber grocery stores 5 to 1 in the US. I wonder what the ratio is to gyms.
Online dating is like a Toys R Us catalog – page after page after page of old men, young men, fat men, skinny men, blonde, Indian, posing with motorcycles, LOTS of men holding their phones while posing in their bathroom mirrors (guys… we really need to work on the art of the selfie!!). Don’t worry, when you get to the 2nd or 3rd date and decide you don’t like the way he holds his fork when he eats, you have a plethora of options to return to. Just go back to the online catalog and find another.
But this isn’t a new phenomenon – we have been growing toward this. 30 years ago, Robin Williams played Vladimir, a Russian circus musician who defects when his circus visits NY, in a movie called Moscow on the Hudson. Just days after defecting in the Midtown Bloomingdales, the security guard’s family that took him in sends him to the grocery store for coffee. In 1984 Russia, there was coffee – sometimes. When there was coffee, you got whatever coffee there was. It didn’t have a brand name, you didn’t get a choice – you were just happy to get some. Alone, at an American grocery store for the first time, Vladimir finds the aisle where the coffee is located, discovers that the coffee possibilities take up half the aisle (it was the 80s, it didn’t take up an ENTIRE aisle yet) and dissolves into a meltdown over the pressure to have to choose which coffee to buy.
Quite right – I think a meltdown is in order.
Once upon a time, there were 7 flavors of daiquiri. They tasted great and you caught a buzz. Mission accomplished.
You got 4, maybe 5 channels on TV. If Gilligan’s Island wasn’t on yet, you just watched the A-Team or The Brady Bunch till it was. How on Earth did we survive without 400 channels?! I would be perfectly fine with 4 or 5 channels, but the channels I would watch are only available in the package that has 140 channels for just $20 more. I don’t want 140 channels. I just want 4 or 5.
But I can get a home phone with the 140 channels! At least the cable companies have stopped calling it a ‘land line’. Ask anybody on Long Island in the days after Hurricane Sandy if cable companies give you a ‘land line’. I digress.
Back in the olden days (you know, the 80s?), restaurant menus were 1 big piece of laminated paper, folded in half, with 4 sides of meals to choose from. We didn’t need more than that – you want a burger, a sandwich, or an entree? The end.
I get looked at like I’m speaking in type-o when I order a hamburger with lettuce, tomato, pickle and some ketchup, with a side of fries. “No cheese? Mushrooms? Bacon??? You’re sure you just want fries? What about some deep fried asparagus? Or a caesar salad? I could bring out an onion blossom – how about that?”
Online dating exists because we don’t make eye contact in the produce aisle of the grocery store anymore, much less engage in a conversation that might lead to a date. But online dating has become such a flippant activity, like shopping for a new shirt or video game. The pages upon pages of pictures are actual people – with feelings and lives. Even the jackasses that build a profile about finding their perfect match just so they can get laid are people (sort of). By making the dating options endless, we are always comparing who’s right in front of us to who might still be out there. Like finding ‘the one’ wasn’t hard enough…
When did we all get so friggin’ unhappy with what we already had? Meh, who wants what we already have?! Simple is boring! Is it really better to have more to choose from? Are our lives really better? We’ve created a beast in our culture that is never satisfied with what is right in front of us. We have to constantly reinvent what we already have to keep us from seeing that none of it is really making us happy.
In Buddhism, all of the options and choices are seen as worthless distractions that only feed the ego. All the Cable TV channels and daiquiri flavors in the world aren’t really going to lead to happiness, and I don’t think you have to be a Buddhist to get that. We’re all going to die anyway; why waste our time caught up in how difficult we can make it to get a burger? Gimme simple. Gimme easy, so I can get back to what really matters. Just gimme a burger with some fries. OK?
Originally published on Elephant Journal.