The word “settle” doesn’t always conjure up the most enticing images—particularly in the minds of millennials. It can make us think of settling (as in, for less than we deserve) or of settling down (the thought of which is anything but enticing).
On the other hand, the word “freedom” often puts our minds at ease. Unlike our parents’ generations—for whom freedom was more of an abstraction–we have been raised to see freedom as something necessary and attainable, and to worship it. Psychologist Barry Schwartz has called it the “official dogma of all Western industrial societies”. In a 2005 TED Talk, he said:
“The official dogma runs like this: If we are interested in maximising the welfare of our citizens, the way to do that is to maximise individual freedom. The reason for this is both that freedom is in and of itself good, valuable, worthwhile, essential to being human. And because if people have freedom, then each of us can act on our own to do the things that will maximize our welfare, and no one has to decide on our behalf.”
What does this freedom look like? It looks like the ability to choose whatever we want in life. It looks like being able to use technology to cycle through hundreds of potential love interests in an hour, to change careers at the drop of a hat, to travel overseas on a whim, to have a plethora of options when ordering from Uber Eats on a Wednesday night. It looks like consumerism—the cultural phenomenon that has seen us prioritise desire over need.
How can we commit to a decision when the next best thing might be one Tinder swipe away? Commitment-phobia doesn’t just relate to technology or the consumption of goods and services, it has begun to bleed into other areas of our lives too. We allow our notions of freedom and choice to play out when it comes to the big life decisions as well as the little ones.
When I recently asked a friend if she thought our generation had commitment issues, she nodded and said, “Hence why I am 28, single, still living at home, a casual employee and relatively happy with ‘what I’m doing.’” And that’s just it: For fear of choosing the wrong option to the exclusion of all others, many of us aren’t doing all that much. Unable to decide between the horizon and the shoreline, we tread water in no man’s land.
Consider that while our parents most likely chose their tertiary course—if they had the option of tertiary study at all—between a few safe bets (doctor; nurse; engineer; teacher), millennials and our successors have a whole smorgasboard available to us. This isn’t an inherently bad thing, but the upshot of being so spoilt for choice is that we don’t even know where to start. We begin to wish we had a magic eight ball or a fairy godmother sitting on our shoulder to tell us what to do. To take away our free will, in other words. As if it were a burden. The very freedom we are worshipping can also be an anxiety trap.
Schwartz points out that even when we do succeed in making a decision, we’re plagued by concerns over whether we made the right choice, and we start to imagine the alternative being much more satisfying. We believe that the grass is greener. We focus on what Cheryl Strayed has called, “the ghost ship that didn’t carry us”. What if we had chosen to study education instead of law? What if we had married that other person? What if we had decided to have children five years earlier, or five years later? What if we had said yes to that job, or that trip, or that house?
So what is the antidote to this relentless questioning? When it comes to making decisions, the answer might lie in inverting the words of prominent 1920s Wall Street banker Paul Mazur.
“We must shift America from a needs- to a desires-culture,” he said around the birth of consumerism in 1927. “People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed.”
What if we shifted back to focusing on our needs? What if instead of looking outwards we turned inwards, shut out the noise, put our hands on our hearts and quietly asked ourselves the simple question of whether our needs were being met? And then beyond that, we asked ourselves why we possessed such a need in the first place? A desire for a tropical holiday, for example, might really be about a need for peace and quiet and time away from our computer screens. A luxurious candle might betray a need for self-care.
Likewise, we need to invert our definition of freedom to mean not a multitude of options but the ability to be fully present with the one we’ve chosen. Settling, in the old-fashioned way—the way our parents did; the way that has become so distasteful to us—invariably means sacrificing something in favour of something else. Yet settling might be the answer to finding happiness and contentment from our choices. The alternative is to spend our whole lives anxiously wandering the world, never appreciating what’s in front of us.
At some point we must flick off the switch that keeps us incessantly gazing around for something better, choose something to inhabit and say, ‘This is enough’ (or at least, ‘I’m sticking to this for the time being’). This means exercising gratefulness for what we already have, as opposed to what we don’t, and realising that the only real way to liberate ourselves is to commit to something in its beautiful entirety.
True freedom is freedom from our restless minds. It involves stillness. It involves knowing the grass will always be greener. It involves accepting the ghost ships that didn’t carry us. It involves looking upon our freedom not with apprehension, but with gratitude. Because we can’t splinter ourselves into a million pieces and live a million different lives. We only have one life, and the best we can do is throw our whole selves into it.