Rushworth feelings, and Crawford feelings

In Mansfield Park, Maria Bertram has “Rushworth feelings, and Crawford feelings.” Maria is not the heroine. She does not even get a very happy ending, but I think that many people can relate to that feeling of being torn asunder between two options. Rushworth is the very practical option, the one which excites only the blandest of emotions, dull, stable, boring, and faintly ridiculous. The Crawford feelings are the irrational impulses. They call one irresistibly to do something without considering the consequences.

The Rushworth feelings and Crawford feelings swirl about, waiting for the right answer, but it all comes down to preference. Maria Bertram tries to choose both and as a result loses her reputation. It is not the wrong decision to act on Rushworth feelings, to marry the rich fool in order to gain social position and have fancy houses and carriages and such. On the other hand, that is not the right decision either. Fanny Price, the novel’s heroine, would not have picked such a choice. Neither would Jane Austen’s other heroines, particularly Elizabeth Bennet, who declines the ridiculous Mr. Collins and even the proud Mr. Darcy the first time around.

It is merely a decision, an act without distinctions between correct and incorrect.

When making a big decision, it seems easier to reduce every aspect into purely analytical terms. Make a pro/con list, add up the tally, and decide that way. Such processes can make it possible to assign each option with Right and Wrong. But it does not really work that way, does it? Even if it ticks off all of the right boxes, the list is more about fine tuning what it is you really want. The list is unique to you. It is not any more analytical than taking stock of your values and feelings and deciding that way.

I turn to works of fiction for advice more often than is good for me, but Jane Austen has taught me, more than any other writer, about the importance of following one’s inner guide. There is no universally acknowledged compass to follow. There is no glory in making a decision because another person thinks it is what you ought to do, because it is the most practical option, because you made a list and analyzed and reduced things to the coldest terms. Life is not a contest you can win. It is a series of episodes and choices and endless branching off, and your own ability to internally decide what is best for you.

Perhaps life is a multiple choice quiz where all of the questions are impossible and written in a language you do not know. There is no absolutely right option. There are simply a multitude of options without rank, the ability to take one option, and the resulting consequences, whatever those might be. Picking an option is all about personal preference and discovering which choice aligns best with one’s values. No decision is objectively worse or better than another. Each choice simply leads off to a separate path. There are no certainties, no matter the choice one makes.

Practicing gratitude

“Selfishness must always be forgiven you know, because there is no hope of a cure.” –Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

About a year ago, I read Paris Letters by Janice MacLeod. The book chronicles her journey from fed-up office worker with a dearth of vacation time to her decision to save money and then quit her job to travel in Europe. I am sure that many of us dream of living that scenario, but how practical is it? How can we justify dropping everything to live a dream? It seems wrong and selfish from everything we have been taught to want and taught to value.

The goals we set for ourselves, that we are given from a young age, to get a good job, to get married, have kids, buy a house and car, tend to weigh us down with expectations. When we do not meet those expectations by a certain age, it is as if we have failed in some way. Haven’t met the perfect spouse by age 30? Failure. No kids or (gasp) do not want kids? Not only a failure, but selfish. We tend to be judged against the potential that other people see in us to be like them, and, when we fail to become the person in those potential versions of our lives, it leads to dissatisfaction and a feeling of being lost.

MacLeod’s account is not very specific when it comes to financial planning. She arbitrarily decides on saving $100 a day, is able to sell artwork and make money buying and selling stocks through methods that she does not completely explain. However, she is savvy enough that she meets her goal, cuts down on clutter, and is able to pack her life into a suitcase and travel. Through her journey, she discovers a means of earning an income without going back to an office job.

I have thought a few times of taking a risk like MacLeod did, but each time I am stopped by a feeling of selfishness. It seems wrong to complain about a life that is pretty stable when I have a job and people who care about me. Perhaps I need to be more grateful. Apparently, lots of people keep gratitude journals, though I cannot say for sure that that kind of positive reinforcement would work for me. Feeling forced to make a list each day would possibly lessen the gratitude, no?

Instead, I am trying to stay focused on what is around me, to be grateful for sunshine and good weather, flowers and trees and shade on a hot day. And to see the possibility that the life I want is not as out of reach or as selfish as the world leads me to believe sometimes. There is sunshine in Europe too. And castles and Cadbury Crème Eggs. Perhaps, with my meager vacation time, I can see some of the world, and, if I save enough, I can take a trip like in Paris Letters.

Part of the message of Paris Letters, to get rid of unnecessary clutter and expenses, to live a minimalist life to save for the things that matter most, is something I can implement today. And perhaps those small changes can help me to accomplish something larger.

Just as you are

“I like you, very much. Just as you are.” –Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001, Movie)

Bridget Jones’s Diary is one of the few movies that I like better than the book. It perfectly captures the life of an awkward, verbally incontinent, 30-something woman and her struggles to establish a successful career while dating someone highly unsuitable. There are parts of the book that I quite like (Singletons! Hurrah!), but Renée Zellweger, Colin Firth, and Hugh Grant are so perfect for their roles and the script is so charming that it makes me not regret the changes from the book.

The movie opens with the new year. Bridget is going to a party at her parents’ home where she meets Mark Darcy, a successful barrister. With a name like Darcy, it is safe to assume that she will hate him immediately, yet it is equally true that she will be mistaken about her first impressions. She begins flirting with her boss, Daniel, and begins an unsuitable relationship with him. However, despite the prominence of the romantic plot lines, it is Bridget alone who carries the story.

She is no Elizabeth Bennet. She is not particularly eloquent. But she shows a great capacity for growth. In the end, she stands up for herself, gaining a new job and an important television interview in the process. And she did it by being herself. She is not an elegant woman of the femme fatale sort, who woos and tosses aside men as she chooses, but she has a great group of friends who care about her. She does not project an image of absolute perfection. Flawed, Bridget does the best that she can and tries to be kind and, above all, is herself despite what other people may think of her.

This is not a groundbreaking movie in terms of cinematography, pushing the borders or introducing something new. Instead, it is a funny movie about a likable woman in a world where, even today, there is a shortage of movies with women protagonists. It is the story of a woman who finds someone who loves her precisely for who she is, who does not expect her to change, and, in a way, I suppose that is groundbreaking.

What I like most of all is that sense of being true to herself. Despite Bridget’s attempts at self-improvement, she does not allow it to change her inner sense of self. There is a scene where she ditches a collection of self-help books and replaces them with new ones. However, she does not need them. Guided by her own internal compass, she navigates her way to a happy ending, even if it does involve an embarrassing public speech. That is who Bridget is, though, and it makes the ending that much better.

This movie offers a reaffirming message in terms of making decisions. Just be yourself, however flawed, and be persistent and focus on what is truly important to you. You will eventually find the right place where you will be accepted, just as you are.

What is Choice?

“I have no talent for certainty, Susie.” -Patricia Rozema’s Mansfield Park (1999)

As I continue to struggle with making a decision, wavering and delaying and weighing alternatives, I started to think about what factors are involved in the process. Choices are a part of everyday life. Something as simple as a trip to the grocery store results in a multitude of options, name brand vs. generic, healthy vs. glutinously rich and fattening, varieties, flavorings, a whole array of options and prices. The imagination of manufacturers is not limited, nor are the marketing departments in making us think that we need the product.

But what really constitutes choice?

Choice implies economic means. In Beggars and Choosers, Rickie Solinger argues that choice is only possible if one has options. Options require socioeconomic privileges, whether it be money, opportunity, or access. Therefore, the use of the word choice is complicated by all that it implies. You could say that I have a choice of buying a luxury car or a cheap car, a house in a neighborhood with a good school or one that is not. However, one only has that choice if the options are all equally open to that person. Choice in a non-starter for some people because of their circumstances.

The ability to make a decision, even talking about it, comes from a privileged place that not everyone has access to. The choices I have, the decisions I can make, are not unlimited.

For instance, take something as ordinary as going to see a movie. Many people wouldn’t even bat an eyelash at the idea. That’s easy. Go to your car, drive to the movie theater, buy tickets. But what if there isn’t a movie theater in your neighborhood? What if you don’t have a car, and it isn’t within walking distance? Is there good public transportation in the area? Is the public transportation affordable? What is the cost of movie tickets? Is that a cost you can afford? How many people do you need to buy them for? Yourself? Family? Children? Is the money instead needed for some basic necessity? Something that seems so easy for people of a certain socioeconomic status can quickly spiral into impossibility for someone who lacks the means.

Imagine how that can affect bigger issues. Something that may be, to one person, a basic right is reduced for another into the realm of not even being an option.

On the other end of the spectrum is too much choice. This can have a paralyzing effect, so that, rather than shift through the various options, one simply does not choose. In his TED talk entitled “The paradox of choice”, Barry Schwartz says that we end up less satisfied with our choices when there are many options than we would be if we had fewer options to choose from. He says that this is because, no matter what the outcome of the decision, it is easy to imagine the alternatives and to think that they may have been better, or to consider the opportunity costs, what you missed out on by choosing something. This makes you regret the decision that you made, thereby reducing the satisfaction from the chosen option, even if it was a good decision.

Schwartz ends his talk with a discussion of the problems with too little choice. Perhaps, as he suggests, if we could shift our multitude of choices to those who lack them, the world would be a better place. Perhaps, if we could even out the playing field even just a little, everyone would have access to choices that would improve their lives.

Finding inner balance

“It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.” –Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

In the process of moving forward, I have spent too much time unwisely looking to the past. I can hear the advice others gave me (“that is where the jobs are” as if they were Lydia Bennet telling me that Brighton is the place to find a husband). There came a point where the roads branched off. I chose a path. The person I was then had other options, could have developed other skills.

Novelist Jonathan Odell says to never get good at what you hate. I have followed that way of thinking pretty much without wavering ever since I became old enough to make my own decisions. Instead of trying to fit into an employable mold or picking a path because it would look more impressive to others, I have instead chosen my own way.

And then I allowed outside noises to goad me into feeling lost and shamed.

If you listen to all of the advice available and try to fit into molds created by other people, it’s inevitable that you will begin to feel as if you have lost your path somewhere. I am still figuring out my own path (hence the blog). However, in really committing myself to figuring out who I am and what I want, I feel like I have more certainty about the present moment and where it leads.

Things I have learned:

  1. It is hard not to feel regret for all of the paths not taken. But there comes a point to realize that you are only answerable to yourself for your choices. Words like disappointed or wasted potential should not come into the conversation. You are not responsible for the feelings of others.
  1. Changing course is natural and completely doable. You can reinvent yourself at your lowest points, using books, using whatever resources you can find. If you discover you have chosen the wrong path, it is never a dead-end. There is always another way around.
  1. Commit to time for recharging. Whether through meditation or reading, crossword puzzles or a quiet dinner with friends, make sure to take time for yourself. There is so much pressure in this world to accomplish everything as quickly as possible that sometimes it can be hard to stand aside and just appreciate the moment.

How to make a difficult decision

“We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.” –Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Today, while trying to make a difficult decision, I found Ruth Chang’s TED talk on the topic. More elegantly than I could, she came to the conclusion that hard decisions (and some easy decisions) are not a matter of one choice being greater than, less than, or equal to another choice. There is no way to determine an absolute value, no scale to balance between them, no time machine to see the consequences of the various decisions. Instead, there are merely choices and the ability to weigh them internally against what is important to you.

You risk drifting, she says, when you instead listen to the outside noises of what others think is important. There is an infinite amount of advice available by just entering a few words into a search engine, and sometimes it can be difficult to focus on your own internal compass when tons of people, all convinced that they are right, want to give you advice. You have to decide what is the core of who you are (a donut-eating, urban-dwelling artist, for example) and to make all of your choices based on that core.

So, while money may be the primary factor that drives another person’s decisions, it is not safe to assume that a job that offers more money is the best decision for you. There are a variety of factors that need to go into the decision. The standard of living you want, the hours, your outside interests are all important factors. While this doesn’t offer a neat solution to my own choice, it has helped me to pinpoint a few things on which to focus:

  1. Tune out the other voices. For a moment, consider who you are, what you value, what is important to you. Personally, I know that money will never be a big component of my happiness. Having a career with a big salary does not fit in with my INFP, dreamer personality type. I have spent so much time reading career advice and listening to advice from friends and family members that I have strayed away from the core of what is really important to me.
  1. Be realistic. I like Penelope Trunk’s advice because she is a great writer. She manages to be both practical and a good story-teller. And her life is full of drama that she doesn’t attempt to hide. Even on topics that don’t interest me, like homeschooling, I can usually find something to take away and use in my everyday life. For instance, you cannot be anything you want to be. Which is true. We all have limitations within our particular set of skills which we have to acknowledge when making any big decision.
  1. Take time to acknowledge that the decision is difficult, but that there has to be a choice in the end. I personally feel better before I make a decision, so I tend to prolong it as long as possible. Any excuse I can make, I will, procrastinating until the absolute last minute. The thing is, the extra time doesn’t help, and, if anything, it just delays the inevitable. It is perfectly fine to realize that you are lost, that the decision is difficult, but that shouldn’t be an excuse not to keep moving forward.

Making a difficult decision takes a lot of courage, strength, and soul-searching. It is not easy, but it is worth the time and effort that goes into the choice.