William Liao

December 12, 2021

Choices

Last year, I heard an interesting metaphor from clinical psychologist Michael Yapko that has stuck with me ever since: 

He talks about two types of people: some who fall into a ditch and work hard to dig their way out, and some who fall into a ditch and start to decorate it. 

Yapko suggests that much of life is about walking a fine line between novelty and familiarity — two things we depend on to function. 

It’s easy to imagine how a strong bias towards familiarity might lead one to decorate the ditch they fall into, and how a strong bias towards novelty might lead one to eagerly dig out of it if only to understand what lies beyond it. 

When reflecting on your growth trajectory and the kind of life you want to lead, it’s helpful to put your existence into the context of this metaphor. 

Are you in a ditch or not?

If yes, are you decorating it or trying to find a way out of it?

Understanding your current position & what your goals are can help govern what choices you make next. 

Another thought experiment that seems to be particularly good at provoking deeper reflection & thought into one’s life choices is Friedrich Nietzche’s Eternal Recurrence from his book The Gay Science, where he writes: 

“What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence — even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!’

Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.’ If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you. The question in each and every thing, ‘Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?’ would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life?”

Insofar that it’s the choices you make that invariably color your experience of the present and the future, it’s worth committing the time and attention to understand precisely what is governing your decisions.