Today, an installment from the Department of Self-Evident Observations.
This observation: Every choice is a trade-off.
Everything has its upside and its downside. This seems to be one of those transcendent truths. For every action, great or small, there’s an opposite reaction.
I thought of this for the 1,000th time over Thanksgiving.
What I’m about to say is not a reflection on my family, who I love and enjoy seeing. Our Thanksgiving gatherings are peaceful: no bruised feelings or crazy uncles railing about politics or drunken aunts face-planting in the gravy bowl.
Our dinners allow us to stay in touch instead of drifting permanently apart. The young cousins romp. We adults catch up on the family news (job changes, due dates for babies) and tell the stories we told the year before.
We’re making memories, as somebody said recently.
What’s also true is that these events are a ton of work.
My wife Liz and I are the hosts, because I’m now the family patriarch. We spend two full days beforehand cooking and cleaning and counting chairs and running to the grocery and placing knickknacks on high shelves where they won’t get smashed.
Then everyone rolls in. There are 20-some of us crammed into our modest house. For two hours it’s bedlam — the kids squealing, the adults talking over each other, a football game blaring on the TV, spoons clanking on dishes.
I live most days in near-silence. On Thanksgiving, I feel as if someone has dumped me upside down into a gigantic Waring blender and pushed the puree button.
And then, suddenly, they’re all gone.
I told Liz last week as the last car pulled out of our driveway, “I’m so glad they all come. But I’m glad when they leave.”
The storm had blown through. Calm had re-descended — except it was then time to shovel up the rubble.
I’m not complaining. I’m already looking forward to our Christmas bash later this month.
My point is, the Thanksgiving dinner is a trade-off.
I get to see my extended family. I get to help make memories for the grandchildren and great-nieces and great-nephews. I get to eat turkey.
Yet I also stress out and have to upend my monastic lifestyle and at last go to bed with my ears buzzing as if I forgot my earplugs at a Led Zeppelin concert.
I could choose not to host the dinners. Hosting them is my decision, and I intend to keep right on doing that. But there is somewhat of a downside, too.
That’s how it is with everything: upside, downside.
There’s no perfect solution. Everything’s a tradeoff.
If you decide to become a doctor, lawyer or entrepreneur, you might earn a fat paycheck someday. You might gain the respect of your friends and neighbors.
But you’ll also work brutal hours, under significant pressure. You could be stuck for 30 years in a job that’s lucrative but dry as dust, wishing you’d earned that master of fine arts degree in writing instead and become a poet, which was where your heart really lay.
If you become a poet, you’ll work whenever inspiration strikes and get to say whatever you want, however you choose to say it. Your soul will soar freely. You’ll come and go as you please and sleep until noon, beholden to no boss but your own muse.
You’ll also likely live on the precipice, without a steady income or health insurance or a reliable roof over your head. Your family may brand you as weird and irresponsible. When you hit middle age without a retirement fund, you may rue that you didn’t get an M.D. degree or a J.D. or an M.B.A.
It helps to recognize all this as we’re facing any choice, and also after we’ve chosen: a possible new job, buying a house, whether to have kids.
Some solutions are better than others, but there is no perfect solution. And whatever we choose, there’ll be days (or years) when we’ll look at that path we didn’t take and second-guess ourselves.
What if I’d married him, you’ll ask yourself someday, instead of this slug I did marry? Why did I have these nettlesome kids? Why did I buy this McMansion instead of something I could afford?
The answer is that you did choose this slug, you did have those kids, you did buy that house — and here you are. And if you’d chosen that other guy or remained childless or bought a one-bedroom condo, you’d be asking yourself the same kinds of questions. Those choices wouldn’t be perfect, either.
Because that’s how life works in an imperfect world. Whatever’s good carries a taint of evil. Joy and sorrow remain inextricably interwoven.
Part of reaching contentment is learning to come to peace with our imperfect choices. We face reality. We make allowances. We shrug. We smile. We move forward.