If sung to our mind, those simple lyrics by The Clash represent the eternal struggle we humans experience with ourselves. Should we go out tonight? Or stay home? Should we send a risky text or leave it hanging? Should we? Shouldn’t we? And so it goes for ever and ever.
What is the problem? Why do human beings tend to fail at making even the simplest choices?
The question of free will and decision making is as old as time. In fact, as old as the forbidden fruit itself.
According to the Bible, human existence as we know it stems from an internal conflict followed by severe punishment. Had Eve not been tempted, we would all go on living in paradise, with no worries on our minds. Hakuna Matata of a sort, in a spiritual way.
And yet, starting from that first decision we as a species have embarked on an eternal journey of doubts and choices.
Growing up we are given ready-made paradigms of what our life should be like. This is white, that is black, this is good, that is bad - we are expected to follow suit. Family values, schools we attend, churches we frequent on Sundays, even movies, songs and books dictate how we should see the world.
Thus we do indeed see the world in a certain way, drawing the line between appropriate and inappropriate, expecting to play by the rules and be rewarded with inner peace and a cozy lifestyle. Again, paradise of a sort, this time more worldly.
But then an exit from earthly paradise happens because of the conflict between established social norms and the reality that we experience on a personal level. In other words, our world clashes with the outside world, resulting in internal turmoil and difficulties with decision-making.
“The biggest unrest I have felt was because I was afraid people would be disappointed and refuse to respect me,” an anonymous source tells us.
According to her, every single slip on her patch would be seen as a failure and disappointment by her peers and superiors alike.
‘There is this established image of you,” she explains, “making it difficult for me to deviate from it and experiment. For example, I’ve said I’d never do this certain thing but, then, at some point I want to do it, because, things change, you know?
And yet I’m afraid people will think I’ve betrayed my principles and disrespect me.
Another person we interviewed points out difficulties in dealing with career choices and responsibilities before the family.
Living and studying abroad she sees better opportunities there, and yet there is always the desire to come home.
“I might have better chances away, but sometimes there is a desire to come home and be with family and friends,” she says, “And then there is a question of finances, of better life opportunities… All the time and energy I and my family have spent to get where I am now… Though sometimes you just want to forget it all and live as you want to live.”
The third respondent confides his disappointment with established views on moral and immoral relationships.
“I’m struggling with the idea of monogamy.” he says, “You know how you love your partner and expect mutual faithfulness until the end of time? Well, in reality, there are other people around and that’s when you start to doubt and consider polyamory. I’m not sure where to draw the line here.”
What these three people have in common is that outside factors are influencing their choices.
Fear of failure and disappointment, as well as established moral norms and peer pressure shape our self-perception and place in the society. The image created by others influences us a great deal, making it stressful for us to focus on what we personally want, rather than what is expected of us.
And like that we return to the metaphor of Eve holding the apple. For her, the punishment was the wrath of God, for us it is human wrath - embarrassment in the public eye, loss of reputation or anxiety in our own heads.
What Eve and we are obliged to do is to conform to the reality we live in. Those outside the box might be quickly branded as fallen humans or people who could not live up to our universal expectations.
*Cover image: Lucas Cranach the Elder