Sylvia Plath’s purple figs lesson

Hello. Are you like me? As in, do you really, truly struggle with making decisions? 

Image via Tom Turner
Image via Tom Turner

I think many of you reading this blog do. As I’ve written before, decision fatigue sees us do dumb things, like reverting to default or safe options, or to making decisions that keep our options open…which just prolongs the fatigue.

After a day spent making decisions, judges in the US were found to default to more severe parole sentences in the afternoon. They were decision-spent and subsequently set more conservative sentences that kept options open (they could always reduce them later). Another study found that when we have to choose the customised extras for our car, we deliberate conscientiously at the start of the form, then eventually “give in” to the default options (nattily, companies put the more expensive decisions at the end of forms).

I have many tricks and outlooks for dealing with the matter, like “just deciding” (because once we simply decide on an option, it becomes the right one), and enjoying the peacefulness that follows any decision, even the wrong one, and Louis C. K’s 70 per cent rule

But I came across this insight from Sylvia Plath (from her book The Bell Jar) just now. I’ve cut out some of the quote so you can get to the point (without having to decide what bits to skim… you’re welcome!):

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree…From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was…a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion. 

I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose.

I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”

It’s a bit Debbie Downer (it’s Plath, to be fair), but I took from it a good lesson just now. If we choose one fig – any fig – we might miss out on the rest. But it’s one more fig than if we stall and do nothing. Actually, it takes me back to the psychology of just deciding…and when we do, it becomes the best option. If you get a moment, revisit this notion, with Plath’s purple figs in mind.

Tell me, because I am interested, does this quandary Plath poses terrify you? How so?

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