by Cara Gardner

Every day, average Americans make thousands of choices, from the moment we wake up to the final seconds before we drift off to sleep. We choose -- to a certain extent -- our living spaces, our jobs, our friends and lovers, whom we vote for and what we do with our spare time. But in the midst of all the larger lifestyle preferences that people around the world make, Americans are faced with a vast assortment of lesser, yet equally challenging choices, such as what car we drive (if we drive one at all), what kind of gas to put in that car, whether to get it washed when we fill up (and, if so, which kind of wash to get). It's both ridiculous and appealing, a blessing and curse; it's why many of us love our country and why many of us are dying from the stress of living in it. Consumer choices are endless, irritating and, in America, inevitable. Have you ever stopped mid-stride in the grocery store to count the brands of cereal, cookies, dishwashing detergent and shampoo? How many choices do we really need?

"The freedom of choice as we view it in America liberates and defines us, but it also has a tendency to isolate us -- to emphasize the individual act of choosing and its consequences for us as separate from a broader landscape of relationships and connections," says John Spayde, a contributing editor to Utne Reader magazine. "We feel isolated when we are... left to our own inadequate devices to do the right thing -- pick the healthiest food, the safest car, the right school for our kids, the best president."

In our culture, many believe that consumer choice is a

privilege; in most parts of the world, people's choices

are limited by the circumstances in which they exist. A majority of people take whatever water they can get while Americans stand in front of a sealed glass refrigerator, pondering multiple bottled H20 brands. America, in many ways, with its devotion to individual choice and opportunity, is often referred to as a land of ultimate freedoms because of the vast selections available. But have we been fooled into thinking our choices as consumers signify more than they really do? Are we deluding ourselves with a false sense of control just because we can choose between 12 brands of toilet paper?

"Choicefulness is simply an illusion we foist upon ourselves to cope with the dislocations of a rapidly changing world," writes English philosopher John Gray. "We are not authors of our lives. Nearly everything that is most important in our lives is unchosen. The time and place we are born, our parents, the first language we speak. It is the casual drift of things that shapes our most fateful relationships... yet we have been thrown into a time in which everything is provisional."

Provisional indeed. Americans get the message that their choices as consumers can change their lives. Many are sold on the belief that consumer selection defines who we are as people. We are told repeatedly, and persuasively, that brand names mark us as individuals; they define our interests and priorities. It's all in the name of bigger, brighter, whiter, stronger, safer, softer, sexier, cleaner, cozier and, most of all, happier. But in the ferocious race that is American consumerism, are these choices really making our lives any easier? Here's the irony: A great many of the "conveniences" that supposedly create more leisure actually clutter our lives, filling them with great tangible promises that simply can't make any more fulfilling for us.

"Being surrounded by the rhetoric of choice makes it all the more important to understand what role it plays and does not play in our lives," Spayde explains. "The point is that to naively equate more choice with more freedom is to buy into the consumer paradigm."

There has been a major shift in the landscape of American life in the last century. Instead of not having enough options, many of us are faced with too many. But the next time you're standing in the grocery aisle, staring at multiple shelves of hairspray or packaged noodles, remember this: "Sometimes making a decision is more important than the decision you make."

Publication date: 02/05/04

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