No Excess “Perhaps too much of everything is as bad as too little.” – Edna Ferber Do you agree with this statement on excess?
– What’s wrong, Gus?
– Another yes/no question, Pal.
– Too many, eh?
– Ha ha. All I can say to this is that back in the early 1980s in the People’s Republic of China one thing we didn’t have “too much” of was choice. Either the things we needed and wanted were available or they weren’t. The market — I mean where the food was — depended totally on the seasons and if my favorite green chilies were out of season, too bad Gus. It was also an El Niño year so we had only four sunny days all winter. I couldn’t choose to go out or not in the rain. I had to go out. I learned to use an umbrella…
– What does this have to do with the topic?
– Well, when I got back to the US, there were so many choices for everything that I was overwhelmed. But it really isn’t choice. Take tea. There are five or six flavors of black tea and ten brands. That’s not really choice. Same with breakfast cereal — though there are more flavors and more promises than with black tea — many of the choices are duplicates; the “choice” becomes price.
– Choice is good, right?
– Sure, but I think it can be excessive. It was liberating in China to know that I did not have to make decisions between several nearly identical items. I could only buy what was for sale when it was for sale. It really freed up a lot of brain cells to think about other things. I knew this. I needed coffee. I needed milk — powdered was fine. I needed cheese, so we made trips to Hong Kong, returning with bricks of Danish Havarti, coffee (when local coffee wasn’t available) and tinned butter from Australia. Mayonnaise turned out to be important. Tuna. That little cache of basic and rather boring “home” food was enough. Every other thing was there in China, new and different and something to experiment with. If there was fresh milk it was in the form of yogurt. We’d ride our bikes miles to get it and then I’d make more yogurt using one of the little bottles as a culture. Bread, every afternoon at 4 from the college bakery. We rushed over and queued up. I didn’t need a gigantic variety.
– Interesting. So you had more freedom in Communist China?
– Freedom, in one sense, is a day to day thing not a political thing. I had freedom FROM the need to make gratuitous choices. We in the wealthy world — and I’m going to say the US in particular because I never saw such an excess of choices in any European supermarket — have more superficial choices than we need and possibly not enough REAL choices, like in who leads our country…
– I thought the ability to discriminate between things was an important element of human evolution.
– Well, yeah. We do spend a lot of our lives eliminating choices, finding what we like and what we don’t like. I think that’s how “old” people appear to be set in their ways. They’ve made the choices and found what they want, like and what works for them. When we’re young, we revel in the “opportunity” of choices and we anguish over the possibility of making the wrong choices.
– You anguish over that and you’re not young.
– You got me there, Pal. Still, my recent “choice” was vastly simplified by external circumstances like my age and my retirement income. That was liberating because it eliminated “possibilities” showing them to be IM-possibilities. The thing is, I think we can be distracted from the important choices by the excess of unimportant choices. On what would we exercise our ability to discriminate if we did not have 10 different flavors and 3 different brands of shredded wheat to choose from? I really think about that. The guys that put the first man in space only had ONE kind of shredded wheat on the shelves in their grocery. Anyway, here’s a happy little ditty from Devo that “speaks” to just this question, “Freedom of Choice.”