A Sympathy in Choice

I sometimes wonder how people do it –make decisions, I mean. I’m not talking about what they’re going to have for lunch, or whether or not to wear a blue shirt with a red tie to work -most of those could be settled with a coin toss. No, I’m more concerned with the deeper questions we are asked to solve. The ones for which we have no preliminary data, no idea of outcome, no hint of consequence. Decisions which, poorly made, could have far reaching and unintended repercussions.

I’m not complaining, mind you –just pointing out that unprepared decisions can be fraught. But it leads me to wonder about choice. Do the decisions we make reveal anything about who we are? Do they define us or merely describe us? And if we were stripped of the ability to choose –if someone else took the responsibility- would we be happier? More content? Or bereft of identity -just another voice in the choir? Is choice, in other words, an emergent property of Life, or merely a by-product of chaos? A necessary side-effect of complexity?

Now that I am retired, I’m beginning to think that my life has become too chaotic. Too random. When I was at work, it was structured; there were duties to perform, obligations to honour, social rites to enact –expectations of continuity with commitments that left less room for choice.  And like a forest, the overall characteristics of life-changes are really only discernible when viewed from afar.

So now I am overwhelmed with choice, buried under the weight of options I never knew existed. And, since time stretches before me like a prairie, I find that I am confused by the selection. Or perhaps, bored might describe it better. When you are confined to a candy-store, perspective shifts. Tastes change, and candy is not the object of desire, no matter how many varieties are on offer. It is no longer choice, but monotony. Indifference. Detachment. A surfeit of anything no longer satisfies –it chokes.

I decided to catch a city bus the other day and as luck would have it, there was already a queue. Ahead of me in the line was a man even older than myself leaning on a cane. Bundled up against a bitter December wind, he wore an ill-fitting ankle-length winter coat, and a heavy scarf wrapped around his head like a hijab. His face seemed wrapped as well, because he had a long bushy, untrimmed white beard he tried several times to tuck into the coat like his scarf. No matter his preparations, he still looked cold. I gathered from his clothes that he wasn’t entirely used to the weather here in Canada, either. And to make matters worse, he was carrying a bulky shopping bag so his hands –both of them bare- looked almost blue with the cold.

I was about to offer to lend him my gloves for the wait, but just as I was going to introduce myself, a crowded bus arrived and we all shoved on. The elderly seats were all occupied, of course, but a stout lady in one of them offered her place to the old man. He seemed embarrassed, and looked around at those of us standing nearby almost as if he were asking for our permission. The lady insisted he take her seat, however, so he accepted with a smile and a grateful bow of his head. The scene was so unremarkable, that I think most people standing nearby didn’t notice anything unusual.

But one man did. He was a short, balding man dressed in a suit and tie covered with an expensive looking overcoat that did little to disguise his corpulence. He was carrying a briefcase that he kept shifting from hand to hand because of its weight. And since he happened to be standing right beside me, I noticed he was glaring at the old man who was now sitting quietly with his eyes closed.

Suddenly the man with the suit started to mumble and knocked his leg into the old man. “In this country,” he whispered loudly, “men give up their seats to women.” I could see he was beginning to become angry. “Not the other way around!” he added, loudly.

The old man, clearly intimidated, opened his eyes wide.

“Why is it you think you can come over here and act like you’re still over there?” The man was yelling now. “We do things differently here, old man!”

The old man squirmed uncomfortably, uncertain how to react. People around him stared nervously at their laps, or out of the window, hoping the man would stop. Nobody had yet decided what they should do, although they were obviously uneasy.

“And what’s in that bag…?” he said, reaching out to grab it.

The old man gathered it closer to his waist and I could see he was terrified. The only thing I could think of in the situation was to offer him my gloves, so I stepped between the two of them. “I noticed you looked cold,” I said, and handed him my old leather gloves although the crowded bus was really quite warm.

His eyes met mine and I could see he understood. “Thank you,” he said, accepting them with a smile so wide that it once again untucked his beard from inside his coat. “My daughter told me to dress warmly, but I forgot about gloves…” He peeked under my extended arm at the furious face of the man with the suit.

“I said what’s in the bag, old man!” The man was just not giving up. But by now, a couple of younger men in the aisle were staring threateningly at him.

“What’s in your briefcase, mister?” one of them said with a sneer.

But the little man merely attacked him with his eyes. “Well, it’s not a bomb!” He almost spat the last word out for maximal effect. He nodded his head at the old man, who was busy examining my gloves. “Don’t you read the news reports?” He yelled, as if that was evidence enough to validate his suspicions.

The young man moved closer to the briefcase and leered at him. “Yeah,” he said, his nose almost touching the abuser. “And I read what life was like for them over there…” He turned to his friend who was equally angry. “I think all of us in this bus would feel safer if you got off at the next stop, mister!” And he bumped aggressively into the man.

Fortunately, it was a popular stop, so a lot of people got off as well as the man in the suit. And as they left, most smiled at the old man or touched his leg in an embarrassed apology. A seat became available beside him, so I sat down.

He immediately clasped his hands over mine and bowed. “Thank you sir,” he said in a soft, heavily accented voice. “I didn’t know what to do…” He took a deep breath and looked at me. “I’ve never been in a crowded bus like this before. My daughter warned me… She wanted to pick me up from the hospital, but she got called in to work this morning.” He took my gloves off and gently laid them in my lap. “She told me she’d pay for a taxi, but I decided to take the bus.

“You know, I’m glad I did,” he said, smiling warmly and clasping my hands again. “It made me realize just how kind people are in this country I chose…”

He said it so sincerely, I almost blushed.

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