Whatever choice you make, a teacher told me, is bound to be disappointing. Even if you get precisely what you want, your satisfaction with that choice will never be as exciting as the possibility of having options to choose from. He was right of course. And consequently I struggle with decision-making, because each necessary decision forecloses as many opportunities as it opens up.
But now, whether through conscious choice or through the sheer momentum of paths taken, many of the major decisions of my life are over. I’ve hardened into the life I will lead, and I’m old enough to look back on the flexibility of youth with nostalgia. And while I sometimes miss greatly the excitement of endless possibility, I also find that there can be value in having a mindset that is to some extent “hardened.”
School teaches us to value new insights and to challenge all that we assume—to be anything but hardened. But, this perspective doesn’t fully account for the utility that comes from automating our behavior and thoughts so that we no longer have to rethink and to remake each choice. Codifying—in our heads, or, in society at large, in law—good insights removes decisions from the table in a way that forces us to behave well and frees up energy for other activities. As I have “hardened” into the person I am, I am more efficient in my work, more secure, and, consequently, more able to think about others. Taking away our agency was Satan’s plan, but transforming our insights into habits and rules that for a period of time we can shelf choices on those topics and move on to others is really not half so bad.