One such story is the story of “Buridan’s ass.” In it, an ass stands between two identical piles of hay, and unable to find a reason to choose one pile over the other, dies of hunger.
I know this story well, and I was struck by how absolutely perfectly it applies to Geoff Dyer’s description of his struggle to decide what book to write next, as set forth in his fascinating book, Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence. Dyer writes:
Although I had made up my mind to write a book about Lawrence I had also made up my mind to write a novel, and while the decision to write the book about Lawrence was made later it had not entirely superseded that earlier decision. At first I’d had an overwhelming urge to write both books but these two desires had worn each other down to the point where I had no urge to write either. Writing them both at the same time was inconceivable and so these two equally overwhelming ambitions first wore each other down and then wiped each other out. As soon as I thought about working on the novel I fell to thinking that it would be much more enjoyable to write my study of Lawrence. As soon as I started making notes on Lawrence I realised I was probably sabotaging forever any chance of writing my novel which, more than any other book I had written, had to be written immediately, before another protracted bout of labour came between me and the idea of what I perceived as a rambling, sub-Bernhardian rant of a novel. It was now or never. So I went from making notes on Lawrence to mkaing notes for my novel, by which I mean I went from not working on my book about Lawrence to not working on the novel because all of this to-ing and fro-ing and note-taking actually meant that I never did any work on either book.
This description struck a real chord with me. I’ve had that feeling of paralysis when I just couldn’t decide between two options. A very unhappy feeling.
Sidenote: This also reminds me of my Secret of Adulthood: Working is one of the most dangerous forms of procrastination.
Have you ever been stuck between two choices?