This is all in keeping with the current liberal project’s moral goal, which is creating lives devoid of any unchosen obligations and absolutely rife with chosen identities of fanciful and recent coinage. The problem is that it’s the unchosen obligations—or the obligations chosen but whose downstream responsibilities cannot be unchosen—that will give us the only real meaning in life. Family, children, our hometowns, our childhoods, our ethnic identity (if we have one), or the chosen-but-undoable commitments—marriage, joining the military, that company we start, religious faith—are the defining obligations where our selves really play out.
If I were to go back and say one thing to my younger self as a warning from the future, it’s this: the eventual cost of optionality in life—all the commitments you don’t make to preserve your ability to instantly change course—is usually not worth the upside that optionality eventually produces.
Growing up, I heard it from my parents many times. “We just want you to have options as you get older.” (My parents both think of themselves as curmudgeonly right-wingers, so it’s ironic that their advice to their eldest son would be so quintessentially liberal.) I remember when Matt P. dropped out of school in eleventh grade. We were all so shocked. “What’s he going to do about a job?!” we said to each other. It was as if he had boarded a ship to the New World in the sixteenth century. We expected a tragic end for him. (I Googled him and saw that he became a chef, so I guess he avoided homelessness, drug addiction, insanity, and all the rest.) It had been drilled into my head for years — get good grades to get into a good college. Join some clubs, sport teams, etc. to appear “well-rounded” on college applications. Whatever you do, don’t limit your options! One day, when I was about eighteen and in the very process of limiting my options by dabbling in community college while attempting to become a musician, I came downstairs quietly and overheard my parents talking in the kitchen. My dad was talking about me as if I, too, had boarded a ship to the New World, and was steeling himself for the inevitable disaster. I stood eavesdropping for a minute, then quietly continued out the door, realizing that for better or for worse, I was on my own here.
I have no regrets. I am practically the avatar of amor fati. But if I were to formulate a rule about the best environment in which to raise and guide children and adolescents, I would emphasize more muscular parental guidance and less laissez-faire “follow your dreams/passion and figure it out as you go.” When life is comfortable in general, and authority figures act almost allergic to “imposing” their values on impressionable minds, the result is often a lot of confused, aimless wandering while waiting for a “calling” to announce itself via a beam of light from the heavens. For me, luckily, I had such a strong, innate drive toward routine and habit that I was never in danger of becoming pathologically afraid of commitment. I have friends my age, though, who seem to be constantly fluttering between relationships, jobs, and locations for no real reason that I can understand. From my perspective, they give up too easily when faced with obstacles. They’re always on the lookout for something slightly more optimal. They seem reluctant to work within the discipline of limits. But as venerable philosophers have taught, a life well-lived means more closed and locked doors behind you. Damon Linker seems to miss this point — yes, “choosing not to choose” is something of a paradox, like most deep truths in life, but it’s not so much about the initial choice; it’s about accepting the consequences, the “downstream responsibilities that cannot be unchosen.” To be a tree or a tumbleweed; that is the question.