With choice comes responsibility.
Today we have more choices than ever before — Traditional 9-to-5 jobs. Freelancing. Entrepreneurship. Work from home. Getting married. Who we marry. If we marry. If we’re straight, bi, gay or transsexual. Traveling the world the year before college. Traveling the world years after college. Apartment. Home. Living alone. Living with six other people we don’t even know off of Craigslist. Rent. Buy. Living with our parents till we’re 30. Having children. IVF. Natural pregnancy. Adopting children of the same race. Adopting children of a different race. Not having children.
Things that weren’t acceptable across the board 10, 20, or 30 years ago are perfectly acceptable in much of society now. And while most of us believe freedom is a good thing, it can also be paralyzing.
FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) is a real thing. The stay-at-home mom at age 26 probably isn’t using her college degree much these days. The attorney in a top firm at age 30 probably didn’t get to see much of the world in his twenties. The fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants adventurer still hostel-jumping at age 38 probably isn’t living in her dream home by 40.
Everything requires choice. Trade-offs. Sacrifice. But every decision also means that we leave others behind. In one of my favorite poems, The Blue House by Tomas Transtromer, he says, “And yet I miss the alternatives. All sketches wish to be real.” The lives we didn’t have, the choices we didn’t make: “We do not actually know it, but we sense it: Our life has a sister vessel which plies an entirely different route.”
What it’s not acceptable to do in our society is to talk about our regrets, or that other life we might have had, publicly. We may never question what we are doing. Social media allows us to post our hottest photos, glowing accomplishments, and exciting escapades, but it does not allow us to be raw and human.
I think the blight of comparison causes a significant amount of pain. One in eight Americans is depressed at any given time, and one in two of us will experience depression in our lifetime. Some of this is biological, but some of it is simply because of the shame society makes us all feel. We’re never living up to the life we believe we should have; we’re never meeting the standards of the loving mother and successful Type-A careerist and super fun adventurer at the same time. And yet, on Facebook, in magazines, in tweets people choose to write about themselves: Everyone else seems to be Killing It.
What’s happening is many of us are self-medicating. Addictions of all kinds are prevalent. People are turning to heroin, other drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, shopping and food addictions in record numbers. We have become an isolated society, a society in which we feel like we are the ones who deserve to be ashamed for not being, doing, or having enough, when in fact many people around us is carrying around that same feeling, but are projecting a different outward image.
Another reason people are addicted may be a disorder of the brain. A PR agency recently sent me Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction. Normally I don’t do book reviews, but given how many people I know are out there struggling with addiction of some kind, I thought this was important and decided to give it a look.
In the book, scientific journalist Maia Szalavitz challenges the idea that someone who is addicted has an “addictive personality” or a “disease.” Rather, she explains that addiction may be developmental order, like autism, ADHD, or dyslexia. The brain simply does not react to situations in a normal way, and instead of enjoying pleasure and moving on, it gets stuck for some reason.
Just as a dyslexic person may get ‘stuck’ on certain characters or combinations therein while reading and cannot interpret them properly, an addicted person’s brain may get ‘stuck’ on certain stimuli and need the stimuli to keep functioning normally. This is why, she argues, some people can drink alcohol and have no issue, while others become hooked over time. The brain has learned to malfunction without the presence of the stimulus.
It’s an interesting theory. And while addiction sometimes has to do with shame, inadequacy, or self-hatred, it may also be an imbalance of brain chemistry similar to a learning disorder.
My point in saying this is as follows: If you or someone you know is addicted, don’t hesitate to get them help. Free or low cost services are often available, and no one should ever have to go it alone.