This one comes to us from Madeline D’Elia.
While most people think about commitment anxiety in terms of relationships, it can perhaps be better thought of in terms of Netflix. Imagine logging into your Netflix account (or your friend, mother-in-law’s, or old college roommate’s account) and scrolling through the thousands of options under the dozens of genres. You finally choose to watch Jane the Virgin. After five or six minutes, you begin to discover the reason that most people love Netflix: If they realize they don’t want to know what happens to a young woman who gets accidentally artificially inseminated, they can just continue watching LOST like they have been for the past six months. Beginning something new, delving into the unknown, never has to be scary. Decision fatigue isn’t much of a reality when we have “If I hate this, I’ll choose something else” in the back of our minds—we don’t have to see any decision through.
Commitment is a daunting word that gives most people anxiety, or maybe I’m just speaking for myself. What is commitment anyway? What makes it different than a promise, an obligation, or a decision? If you are obliged to work for your employer for two years, or if you promise your girlfriend that you’ll “try to make it work,” you have the option of just going through the motions; but being psychologically attached—committing—to a job, person, or even an ideology requires active engagement. In her 2014 book, Commit to Win, social psychologist Dr. Heidi Reeder says that commitment is the phenomenon of being psychologically attached to something and intending to continue. She goes further to say that commitment is daunting because “…all kinds of commitments shape our lives—the constructive ones and the destructive ones. The ones we think about, the ones we don’t think about.”
What Reeder is saying is that whether it’s consciously or subconsciously, everyone is committed to something. As humans we commit to things all the time, maybe even multiple times a day. That anyone will go through life unengaged, committed to nothing, is highly unlikely. What’s daunting is the question of what—what will that commitment be?
What if you commit to something that will affect your life in a negative way? What if you choose that deconstructive option that Dr. Reeder is talking about? What if Jane the Virgin is a waste of forty-five minutes you didn’t have in the first place? Or what if you commit to that job but you hate living in the city that you moved to for it, or the job ends up consisting of a bunch of coffee runs and making copies for your boss? What if you commit to that girlfriend and she dumps you and you find yourself heart broken? How can you commit yourself to something that has an uncertain ending?
These are the questions I’ve been asking myself this past week as I fill out my applications for graduate school. Even though I studied psychology as an undergraduate, secretly read neuroscience articles for fun, did my fair share of internships, and have considered a career in counseling for something like five years now, I have never actually been a counselor. Though I could always change careers, it’s not exactly as simple as switching from Jane the Virgin to LOST. Nevertheless I’ve been scrolling through career options like Netflix genres.
On Tuesday, I decided to be a salsa dance instructor. I’ve been an amateur for years and there’s a studio right down the street, which is probably a sign that I should just invest in some classes and maybe even try to go pro.
But on Wednesday I realized that would be denying my childhood dream of working with animals, so instead I should go with “animal behaviorist.” I wouldn’t have to go to vet school but could still make a career out of observing animals. On a random website linked from BBC Planet, the “job outlook” column said “good.” Which was vague, but sufficient in the moment.
By Thursday “animal behaviorist” seemed too unstable considering that I’d never heard of it before, so I went with a whole new idea: just buy a one-way ticket to Rabat, Morocco, where my grandmother was born, and rekindle relationships with relatives I’ve never met. I then realized this was the most unstable idea yet (and that it actually contained no career plan) and got back to my applications.
In an article in the Scientific American, Elizabeth Landau describes my fantasies of being a salsa dancing animal behaviorist in Morocco as the “choice overload” phenomenon that makes commitment so difficult.
The “choice overload” phenomenon was immortalized in the psychology literature by a 2000 paper by Columbia Business School professor Sheena Evengar and Stanford psychologist Mark Lepper. They showed that when shoppers at an upscale grocery store were given six choices of jam, they were far more likely to actually buy one than when they were presented with 24 choices of jam. Follow up studies confirmed this decision paralysis: more options lead to fewer selections—and, it turned out, less satisfaction with the choices made.”
If twenty-four choices were leaving shoppers paralyzed, and the worst case scenario was a terrible piece of toast, imagine the indecision produced by an infinite number of vocational paths with the looming possibility of a failed career. Meg Selig, in a Psychology Today article that touches on Dr. Reeder’s book, also argued:
Having choices decreases commitment. If you believe that there are lots of potential partners out there in the singles world, for example, your commitment to your current partner could be weakened or devalued. Even the perception of choice decreases commitment.
Ultimately it’s okay if it ends in disappointment, dissatisfaction, or regret. Life will inevitably be full of that whether it has to do with career decisions or something entirely different. The gospel reminds us that each day will hold troubles of its own. Perhaps Kierkegaard said it best in Either/Or:
Marry, and you will regret it. Do not marry, and you will also regret it. Marry or do not marry, you will regret it either way…for the true eternity does not lie behind either/or but before it.
The value of life is not determined by the potential pain or victory that lies behind what feels like the wrong or right decision. God never intended us to know the future or how each decision we make will turn out. The cross gave us the freedom to not have to plan out the future and run from any choice that might produce pain or make us look like a failure to the rest of the world.
So it’s relieving to remember that, even if it ends badly, I need not worry about my decision to go to grad school. The cross reminds us that we will never be in dissatisfaction, disappointment, regret, or pain that is beyond Christ’s redemption. And that’s enough relief to get me to finally put the application in my mailbox.