Tuesday, June 17, 2008

On Choice

What do we really mean when we use the word choice? I'm not referring to the dictionary definition here but how choice actually works out when we use it to describe an action.

It's an hour before dinner and you walk into the kitchen and tell your mother you're starving and need something to hold you over until dinner is ready. She says you can have a piece of fruit--no other choices presented. Okay, you really, really wanted a warm, puffy chocolate-laden doughnut but that was not one of the things available for you to choose from. In fact, you had two choices--eat fruit or don't eat at all. Since your stomach is telling you that eating is the only choice to make, you head for the fridge. In the fruit bin you find apples, lots and lots of apples. There are sweet yellow apples, sour green apples, juicy red delicious apples. There are apples to be eaten raw and apples that are best eaten cooked. There are small apples and large apples. There are apples that have more juice and some that are more mealy. There are dozens of named apples. You've got a huge variety to choose from. The only problem is that they are all apples. And apples are only one type of fruit. But hey, you're still hungry so you take an apple. Your appetite is satisfied until dinner. And truthfully you liked the apple that you ate, but you still wish that you had a choice that was more than apples.

Next week the same scenario plays itself out only this time your mom says that you can have fruit and in the bin are apples and grapes. There are seeded and seedless grapes in there. Some are red, some are green, some are black. Some are small and some are large. Some are sweeter and some are more tart. But you really don't like grapes, no matter which kind they are, so you are back to picking an apple.

The week after that you have the same scenario only this time there are dozens of types of fruit to pick from. Now you have a dilemma. You can still only pick one fruit but how to choose? The pineapple looks interesting but it's too large to eat at one sitting and you don't know what to do with what will be leftover. Maybe someone else will want some also and maybe they won't. You could put it away for tomorrow and the day after that but what if you're not in the mood for pineapple tomorrow, or what if it is not as fresh tasting and appealing when it's been sitting around cut up for a while? The kiwis also look interesting, and you know they taste great, but they're awfully small, and what if eating one won't appease your hunger? The bananas have little brown speckles on their peels and you don't want to take a chance that there is bruising on the fruit under the peel. The pear you pick up has a soft spot near the stem so you put it back. The raspberries are not ripe enough for you. You won't touch strawberries under any circumstances, and you don't care how healthy they are. Finally there are only two fruit choices left--apples and papayas.

Now, you've never eaten a papaya before but you have heard that they can be delicious. Okay, it looks a little strange in shape. There only seems to be one variety of papaya available. You stare at the papaya and then at all the different types of apples. You're in a quandary. Do you go with the tried and true apples or do you try something new?

Some people will opt for the papaya. They eat it and discover that papayas are yummy. They eat every morsel and wish that there was more. Some people will say the papaya is okay and if no other choice was available they would eat the papaya with no problem. Some people say "no way" and wouldn't eat another papaya even if it was the only choice available; they'd do without fruit.

Some people will opt for the apples. They like apples well enough so why take a chance on something that they might or might not like as well? Some people are real apple fans and consider everything but apples to be second best. Some people think that choosing a papaya over an apple would be settling rather than choosing.

Four weeks later you come home and are assaulted by the aromas wafting out of the kitchen. You walk into the kitchen ready to grab something to eat and now face a real dilemma: how will you choose only one thing? There are bags of fruit on the table. There's a fresh cake coming out of the oven, and freshly baked bread cooling on a rack. There's a platter of doughnuts. There's a box of cookies you've never tried before. There is a bag of pretzels. There's a bowl of nuts. There's candy in a container in the pantry. There's leftover chicken and rice in the fridge. There are ice cream bars in the freezer. Choice at last! Only...the cake has cinnamon sugar topping on it and you'd have to scrape that off, thus losing part of your snack. Besides, it could take forever for the cake to cool to eating temperature and you're hungry now. The bread smells delicious but there is no cream cheese in the fridge and you won't eat bread without cream cheese. The doughnuts catch your eye and your hand reaches out for one until you realize that all the doughnuts have lemon glaze on them--no chocolate in sight. You read the cookie box and find out that a portion is only one small cookie, and that won't solve your hunger. The pretzels are unsalted and you only eat salted pretzels. The nuts are mixed nuts but you really only like the almonds and cashews and there aren't enough of them to cover up the peanut taste. The candy bars are made with sugar substitute and you go "yuck!" The chicken and rice will do just fine until you discover there is only dark meat in the container and you are a white meat person. You reach into the freezer for an ice cream bar and discover that they are all strawberry and you won't eat strawberries in any form. So you head for the fruit bags and rummage around until you find the bag containing apples. You pass over the green ones and pick a juicy yellow one.

The week after that you head for a supermarket when you get hungry. Zillions of choices available. You prowl the aisles on the lookout for "the" choice. You're in the cookie aisle and your hand reaches for a box with an amazing picture of cookies oozing chocolate on it. And then you put it back because there is no hashgacha on it. Or maybe there is only a K on it. The bakery aisle has a whole selection of doughnuts smothered in chocolate, only they cost $2.00 per doughnut. Some people will decide that that is too much money to spend on a snack. Some people won't have that much money to spend. Some people will grab the doughnut believing that the product is worth the price. You head for the frozen food aisle and there are the ice cream sandwiches. Some people will not buy those sandwiches because what if they aren't really that good--what will they do with the leftover ones? Some people won't buy them because they only like ice cream once in a while but they'll be stuck eating those sandwiches every day for a week. Some people look at the price and say that the sandwiches are simply not worth what you have to pay for them. Other people won't look at the price because price isn't important when you are talking about ice cream sandwiches. And some people, after having gone through the whole market, will come home with a bag of apples. They're tried and true, the price is right and there are no strange surprises that come along with buying apples.

In every scenario above our hungry person has had choice available. Sometimes what could be chosen was severely circumscribed; other times the choice was seemingly unlimited. Sometimes the "real" choice was made by others--the mother who said fruit or nothing. Sometimes the choice was a partnership--mom's purchases and the hungry person's personal feelings. Sometimes the choice was completely the person's to make, but still circumscribed by experience, by habit, by money, by religious beliefs and by personal preferences.

A comment that was made about "flourishing and vibrant" communities out of town was that to be called thusly a community had to have stability and had to have choice. But "having choice" is an ephemeral statement; choice can mean so many different things to so many different people. Choice of what? When? Where? How? Based on what experience, what habits? Who or what is circumscribing our choices? And is what we choose today going to work for tomorrow or the next day? The next month or the next year? Do we even want it to? Are our preferences when making a choice carved in stone or are they flexible? Should they be non-changing or should they be able to adapt? And are our choices affected if we are hungry when we make them? Would they be different if we weren't hungry but merely planning for our next meal?

Choice--a word that can mean all things to all people or nothing at all. Beware when you are offered a choice--what are you really being offered?


Anonymous said...

Using your example, one way to look at most of Brooklyn today would be to say that there is a choice of apples or nothing to eat. So if choice, or a broad spectrum of choice, is necessary for a community to be vibrant, Brooklyn wouldn't qualify or would qualify in a highly limited way.

Where once the choices were more like a supermarket they aren't that way today when it comes to religious practices. Yeshivish is the fruit of choice in the Flatbush area, chasidish in Williamsburg and a fight to the death between the two of them in Boro Park. Modern Orthodoxy in most of Brooklyn is a dying breed and the kids of those MOs living there now aren't choosing to stay in a Brooklyn that is trying hard to make sure that their brand of frumkeit is not one of the choices. It's hard to say that real choice is still available in Brooklyn when you are basically choosing apples or apples.

Anonymous said...

I saw that comment and wondered what choice the writer was talking about. Affordable housing and services? Puts Brooklyn and most of the city out of the flourishing category. Choice of restaurants? Well yes the city wins hands down, but I don't judge where I'm going to live on the number of pizza joints per square inch in town. And I really don't think that restaurants have anything to do with vibrant. Choice of yeshivas? You can only go to one at a time so having a choice is not a big deal. And as Prof K mentioned on some other posting, the yeshivas in Brooklyn are pretty much all the same so why need choice? Choice of shuls? Unless you really have to daven a particular nusach then as long as there is a fully functioning shul what difference does it make that there aren't more? You need more than one mikveh to go to in case you don't like the color scheme?

I don't get what choice the comment was refering to. Maybe he/she could explain?

Lion of Zion said...


owing to a lack of time i will only respond to one comment of your's:

"You can only go to one at a time so having a choice is not a big deal."

it's not a big deal as long as

a) the school's hashkafah somewhat matches your own

b) the school's pedagogical philosophy somewhat approximates what your child needs

c) your child does not have any type of special needs

unfortunately in the real world at least one of these 3 will be a problem that could be alleviated by a choice of schools.

i would also add that lack of competition is never good, including when it comes to schools. (indeed, hassagat gevul does not apply to talmud torah)