The Anxiety of Too Many Choices

At the end of last year, I felt like I had an overzealous announcer from a cheap TV commercial inside my head, shouting, Everything must go! I had reached a saturation point— a mental one.

Over the last few years, the crazy number of choices provided by the internet and digital media distribution had caused me to build up a seemingly interminable self-assigned “reading list.” Every time I’d see a book I’d like to read, I put it in my Amazon Wish List. If I’d see a movie I’d like to watch— in my Netflix queue!  When I browsed the cable guide, I took full advantage of the DVR’s ability to save every movie on Turner Classic that sounded interesting.

This compulsive hoarding of intended acculturation had also been urged forward by two well-meaning friends: one, my retired next-door neighbor who leaves his weekly Sunday New York Times on my porch when he’s done with it; and the other, a friend who makes a periodic donation of eight or ten weeks worth of New Yorkers, intended for my classroom. Among my ordinary duties as a husband, father, and teacher, I felt like I needed to read them all. (I couldn’t teach an article I hadn’t read, so even reading The New Yorker had become “working.”) Those print publications were stacking up, too.

It may seem pretty harmless, what I just described, but as a person who is driven by a sense of responsibility and by intellectual curiosity, my anxieties had been growing. At any given time, no matter how much I read or watched, I still had thirty or more movies saved on Netflix, a dozen more waiting in the DVR’s Recorded list, five or six dozen books wish-listed on Amazon, a foot-tall stack of Sunday TimesTimes Magazines, and New Yorkers reminding me that I was behind . . . The Times’ weekly Book Review and Arts & Leisure sections, where I found a lot of this fodder, were going to be the death of me!

My approach to all of this media had changed, slowly and without my noticing. Though this collecting was rooted in a life-long curiosity and a love of the arts and humanities, I began to feel . . . well, obligated, as though I owed it to all this media – and to myself – not to ignore it. When my wife would take our kids to her mother’s house, my first thought was: which movie could I get through while they’re gone? I found myself neglecting paper-grading to peruse magazines. And that anxiety/obligation was further fueled by the constant stream of articles that friends shared on Facebook, the never-ending scroll of tweets saying “Don’t miss this story,” and the barrage of marketing emails reminding me not to neglect the vendors I’ve done business with.

As the fall 2015 semester ended, the normal exhaustion from grading combined with these excessive self-prescribed duties had worn me out. So I initiated a purge. Something along the lines of that cleaning-out fad where you ask yourself, Will this give me joy? No, I decided, most of it won’t. I deleted obscure, fringe interests first: books on economic theory, articles on cognitive psychology, old foreign films. That only got rid of about a quarter of it. Something more drastic would have to be done. I’d have to be honest about the media I was saving to watch or read because I felt like I had to.

By the week after Christmas, the wish lists and queues were thinned, and the stack of print materials was manageable. I packed up the unread New Yorkers to go back to school, where they are supposed to be. Next, I dove into newspapers that threaded back months. The News and Sports sections went first, since they were outdated, then the Travel sections, since I’ve known all along that I can’t afford those kinds of trips. The Sunday Styles has very little do with me, since I’m OK with boot-cut jeans and button-down Oxfords, and don’t know anyone of marriageable age in New York. I picked through the rest like I was looking for cashews in the mixed nuts. Finally, all that remained were a few Sunday Review sections from November and December.

Sitting in a friend’s kitchen on a rainy New Year’s morning, recovering from a Blue Moon Winter Variety Pack, Clyde May’s whiskey, and scant sleep, those Sunday Reviews and a cup of black coffee were perfect. The same old subjects were there, in mostly half-page treatments: race, medicine, politics, economics, psychology. I was browsing, not reading, I’ll admit, and then came this one: “Addicted to Distraction” from December 6. I’m still convinced that The Good Lord sent that op-ed down from Heaven, just for me!

Though the whole piece spoke to me, this passage did in particular:

Endless access to new information also easily overloads our working memory. When we reach cognitive overload, our ability to transfer learning to long-term memory significantly deteriorates. It’s as if our brain has become a full cup of water and anything more poured into it starts to spill out.

I’ve described this same phenomenon to friends, family, even students. In my work as a writer and teacher, I deal in the exchange of information; I take it in from multiple sources, process it in the context of my specialized knowledge, and give it to other people in my own way. And sometimes I get mentally full. Reading Tony Schwarz’s analogy told me my problem: my”cup” was overflowing and I was determined to keep pouring.

Earlier that morning, I had been telling my wife and our friends that this year was the only one I could remember when I had no resolutions. I was just too tired to try anything new. The afternoon before, we had been debating about Pope Francis’ resolution list, things like “Don’t gossip” and “Be happy.” Those are too hard, we decided.

Reading that Times op-ed, I knew what my resolution would be. This year, in 2016, I’m reclaiming my humanity from its flustered remnants. I no longer want to be someone whose life revolves around media, who has to read everything, know everything . . . which is going to be hard, too. At least it will be for me. Because I am deftly interested in so many diverse subjects – literature, writing, journalism, history, Southern culture, race relations, social justice, education, arts education, poverty, over-incarceration, food, gardening, the environment, beer, movies, music – it’s going to be hard to let much of it go by, to miss some things knowingly, in order to get back to living. I’ve had to admit – or maybe even re-learn – that media consumption is not living. I think that Tony Schwarz is correct: I too had become addicted.

As I was cleaning out in January, I came across a yet another issue of The Atlantic that I had saved – “The Culture Issue” from May 2012 – and was struck by its cover story: “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” One passage told this:

But it is clear that social interaction matters. Loneliness and being alone are not the same thing, but both are on the rise. We meet fewer people. We gather less. And when we gather, our bonds are less meaningful and less easy. The decrease in confidants—that is, in quality social connections—has been dramatic over the past 25 years. In one survey, the mean size of networks of personal confidants decreased from 2.94 people in 1985 to 2.08 in 2004. Similarly, in 1985, only 10 percent of Americans said they had no one with whom to discuss important matters, and 15 percent said they had only one such good friend. By 2004, 25 percent had nobody to talk to, and 20 percent had only one confidant.

Though I have hundreds of Facebook friends, Twitter followers, etc. I couldn’t tell you the last time someone called me to ask how I’m doing. Nor have I done that for others. We think we’re keeping up with each other, and we think we know how each other are doing, but what’s there on the screen isn’t real. Facebook posts are selective as hell. They represent how we want people to think we’re doing. And when someone crosses a line, maybe posting too often about mundane things, or expressing a harsh political opinion, or sharing deep sadness, most of us get annoyed and back off— something a friend would never do.

All of the time I’ve been saving, by not hysterically devouring rapid-fire information, has come in right handy so far. I’ve been a better teacher, I think, and have been better able to concentrate when I’m working on my Whitehurst book. Though I haven’t sworn off media nor social media, eliminating the needless browsing has opened some minutes to let my mind rest, process the day’s events, and get ready for another day tomorrow. It’s strange to think how we can trick ourselves into believing so strongly in the importance of something that isn’t nearly as important as living.


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