Our Choices on Steroids

When I was in my mid 30s and lived on a farm road with a cornfield next to the driveway, I didn’t hear the cars driving by. Sirens didn’t drown out the TV. Sometimes in a snowstorm, it was breathtaking to look out the window at night and see deer leaping and frolicking among the flakes.

There was not, within a five-minute or even 10-minute walk, a café, church, post office, bank, restaurant, ice cream shop, bakery or deli. These trips all required a car, as did going to the gym or the park to get some exercise. It was part of the deal and it all worked for me then.

Now, more than a decade later, after a calculated decision to switch to urban living, sirens sometimes scream so loudly that I have to pause during a phone conversation. When drivers usher in spring with windows down and they are stopped at the traffic light by my home, I can sing along with their Katy Perry or U2 because I am that close to the street. Ben & Jerry’s is so nearby that my occasional yen for a scoop can be taken care of during a TV commercial and I don’t even break a sweat. That, of course, pairs nicely with the waterfront park two blocks away that gives me a place to power walk in absolute glory.

When a suburban friend last year asked for my secret in getting through a financial hardship in 2002, among the things I told her was that most people wouldn’t trade their suburban sprawl for my modest, but ideally-situated urban apartment. I was already living here when my layoff occurred, and having no car or auto insurance helped me get back on my feet.

Payoffs, tradeoffs, advantages, disadvantages -- call them what you will, but these are the kinds of choices we make in life that feel more amplified now than ever before. As our nation trudges through scary economic times and watches the daily horror-fest unfolding around the world, I’m hearing more people examining their choices almost to distraction. Big choices, too, like whether going back to school is worth the investment or whether to start a business with some money, a love of dance and a boatload of determination.

A few weeks ago when I wrote a Game Plan column called The Uncomfortable Truth about Our Money Matters essentially parsing out the metaphor comparing our country’s budget woes with those of the average household, my mailbox lit up with people expressing their opinions on the choices our country could and should be making. It felt like in many cases they were validating or lamenting their own decisions and how they’ve played out.

Our lives, our choices, are keenly on display right now, aren’t they? It’s like the volume is turned up, pulsing even. Is it all the media exposure? All the crises? The TV programming that gives us a peek into the lives of the supposedly glamorous? The realization that the American dream has shifted? A combo of all of the above?

As we watch survivors sift through houses and cars piled on top of each other in Japan, how can we not in that moment evaluate our own life choices? We could be gone in a flash--what would we regret? The countries we haven’t visited? Or the money we should have invested for the ‘future’ that could be two days or 25 years? When we see bodies covered in Army blankets in a gymnasium on a 60 Minutes segment and realize those people died in a state of overwhelm, are we sweating a few extra pats of butter on our toast? Or are we maybe finally planning the trip to an amusement park we keep promising our child?

The last couple of years I see more and more people -- clients, colleagues, friends -- who are making sweeping career changes or seriously contemplating them. There is a ‘what am I waiting for’ vibe as folks look for ways to bring meaning and passion to their work and lives. Those are in many cases the enlightened and awakened among us.

Then there is the flip side, the kind of questioning brought out in a recent New York Times story by Amy Harmon spotlighting a segment of the Twitter population.

“Twitter users are tiring of it: the sharp pang of envy that comes when someone they are following on the social networking site is clearly having a better time than they are — right now,” Harmon writes, citing elite conferences such as TED or the recent South by Southwest technology and music festival in Austin.

The piece quotes Caterina Fake, co-founder of Flickr, who called it “fear of missing out” or “FOMO” on her blog. It’s really just a derivation of the old saying about grass being greener on the other side. But is it?

As many of the commenters noted on The Times story, sometimes the person writing a Tweet is a poser and his message is contrived. If the reader is so insecure as to be complicit, she is making a choice to see her life as inferior. Envy can be a constructive gauge of what we really want, though. Try making a goal of going to that conference next year, not to Tweet your good fortune to others but to extract the knowledge and spiritual experience so many of those kinds of events provide for willing participants. Then you can share that on Twitter.

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” the poet Mary Oliver asks.

It might be a start to not regret our choices.

We all know people who painstakingly saved for their retirement and died before they got there. We’ve seen folks who have literally lived like there’s no tomorrow and when they reached retirement struggled to make ends meet. The single person building a fantasy around marriage, the married person envying the ‘Cosmo life’ of the single. The person who chose a ‘money’ career path feeling empty but reluctant to make any lifestyle changes for a more meaningful one. The person who makes a living doing what she loves but feels like she’s missing out on all kinds of things more money would buy.

Choices. Every day, big and small. Well thought-out or rash. Made with heart or mind or gut.

Last week a pair of ‘on the street’ correspondents for a local news Web site asked me if I’d answer some questions on camera about whether our mile square town should add more parks. That’s a political point of contention here and I was happy to chime in with a resounding ‘no.’ We have plenty of parks and if I wanted more open space I’d move back to suburbia.

In my book, that’s called a tradeoff. Choice made.

Nancy Colasurdo is a practicing life coach and freelance writer. Her Web site is www.nancola.com. Please direct all questions/comments to FOXGamePlan@gmail.com.