The return of choice

by Brian on April 11, 2021

in Covid-19,Health,In the News,Science

Jodi Rudoren doesn’t want to go back to the old normal.

The editor-in-chief of The Forward writes that while “of course I desperately wish that not one more person would die or even suffer a single day from this deadly virus [and while] I cannot wait to hug my friends again,” Rudoren nevertheless worries that we’ll snap back to our old ways without “truly learning the lessons this crisis has brought.” 

Her hope? That “we find yet another new normal rather than returning to the one we used to know.”

What might some of that new normal be for Rudoren? No more five day a week commutes. Continued quality time with her children even when they go back to in-person learning. More virtual meetings, events and conferences. 

“I do not want to return to the habit of spending two hours shlepping across town to meet someone for overpriced salads when we could do our business in 30 minutes” over a video meeting, Rudoren says.

Even Zoom shivas have their benefits, Rudoren notes. Smaller groups online enable a more intimate space between mourner and those coming to provide comfort. Ditto for Zoom weddings and bar mitzvahs which allow a greater number of people to attend virtually. Congregations offering Zoom Shabbat services have seen their numbers swell and are not rushing to shut down their live streams so fast.

“There are so many things I don’t want to go back to,” writes Allison Hope for “Coworkers sneezing in open workspaces. Crowded weekend malls. Obligatory birthday brunches. Or cocktail hours of any kind where we have to mingle and make small talk with strangers.”

Hope quotes Tori Neville, a communications professional, who says she “loves working from home and not having to do things just to ‘show face.’ My life is so calm, my anxiety is way down.” 

Indeed, a recent Pew study found that more than 50% of employees don’t want to return to office life.

The pandemic has also been a blessing for introverts. 

“Some of my patients who struggled with social anxiety began flexing their muscles of communication during Covid-19,” clinical psychologist Judith Zackson told CNN. “Being in their own space [at home] increased theirconfidence, openness and reflective thinking.”

It’s also helped with setting priorities. “We know more than ever that our time on this planet is limited,” writes Hope. Is it really “worth meeting up with that old college friend we never really liked so much anyway?”

On a personal level, I was fortunate that my workload never really changed during the pandemic – if anything, it went up as clients with more time on their hands decided to pursue long-delayed book projects and turned to me for ghostwriting.

Still, the immediate period ahead of us heralds the rapid “return of choice” – what to wear, where to go, who to host – and that can be stressful. There are concerts to attend, restaurants to visit, culture to soak up, friends to see.

When everything could be accessed from the comfort of my home computer, I felt very little FOMO (the fear of missing out). Remember all the free Torah classes, yoga lessons and cooking demonstrations that were the rage in the initial months of the pandemic, many of which were recorded so you could watch at your leisure?

The return of choice is, for me, best exemplified when it comes to planning a trip. Now that my wife, Jody, and I are fully vaccinated, we’re eager to visit our families in California whom we haven’t seen since 2019. 

But there are so many parameters to consider. What’s the fastest and/or least likely to be canceled route to take when flights remain inconsistent? Which airlines adhere to Covid-19 safety standards the best? Where can I go for a PCR test before flying? 

When I get overwhelmed by choice, I start to spin. I try to hold all the options in my mind at once and I get stuck making a decision. 

Swarthmore College professor of psychology Barry Schwartz writes about this “paradox of choice” in his 2005 book of the same name. Schwartz visited his local supermarket and discovered on the shelves some 85 varieties of crackers, 120 different pasta sauces, 285 types of cookies, 175 salad dressings and 22 different types of frozen waffles.

All of this choice increases the pressure to make the “best” or “right” decision. But we are happier, Schwartz asserts, when we have only a smaller number of choices. Not no choice, but fewer.

Schwartz advocates consciously limiting one’s options. In my travel case, if there are 20 ways to fly, pick the three or four best routes and don’t search beyond that. If you’ve decided on basic economy, don’t flirt – even for comparison’s sake – with Comfort Plus. 

As we come to the hoped-for end of the pandemic and choice returns, we don’t have to retreat to the old normal of FOMO and spinning. We can – and we must – learn from the experience of the last year. 

“I don’t want to go back to packing in as much as I can, rushing between three parties on New Year’s Day or from store to store,” Rudoren writes. “I am not eager to return to the fear-of-missing-out days where I feel badly about what event I’m not invited to or why our vacation plans aren’t as interesting as the next family’s. I want to buy less, own less, travel less, do less — because I’ve learned that less is more than enough.”

I first wrote about new and old normals for The Jerusalem Post.

Jodi Rudoren’s picture is from her Twitter profile.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Gidon Ariel April 12, 2021 at 8:30 am

thank you Brian, my thoughts exactly.
“No more five day a week commutes. Continued quality time with our children. More virtual meetings, events and conferences. No shlepping across town to meet someone for overpriced salads when we could do our business in 30 minutes over a video meeting.”

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