The ten million decisions I need to make in the run up to frenetic festive season

It's about whom to invite, when, with whom, what family to see, what to cook, and if there’s time, what to wear too


Illustration for a dinner table set for the traditional "seder" meal for the upcoming Jewish New year ( Rosh ha Shana). September 10, 2017. Photo by Mendy Hachtman/ Flash90 *** Local Caption *** ??? ???? ??? ???? ???? ??? ???? ???? ????? ??

September 15, 2023 13:11

Chicken or London Broil — or both? Rice with carrots or rice with dill? Or no rice and just potatoes? The Pollaks then The Samuels or The Pollaks with The Samuels? And when do we invite my parents? Then what about his parents? Are we wearing autumn hues or summer brights? Is it the felt hat or straw hat? Clear tights or maxi skirts? How many barbecues can you eat in a three-week period?

These are just the first ten of the ten million decisions I have had to make in the run up to our frenetic festive season.

For some, this time of year is about teshuvah, for others it’s about whom to invite, when, with whom, what family to see, what to cook, and if there’s time, what to wear too.

In case I’ve left you with any semblance of doubt, I fall into this latter category. There’ll be time for repenting once everything’s cleared up.

So it was with great glee that just in time to save me from the High Holy Day decision whirlwind came a gift from Hashem via Harvard professor Ellen Langer: a guilt-proof guide to decision making.

The headline news from the psychologist, who has been teaching a course on decision-making for 40 years, is that gathering information to weigh up the pros and cons is a waste of time. Her message to the world: pick any option and make it work.

I can’t think how many trees could have been saved if someone had told me not to bother with pros and cons lists in my adolescent years. But moving forward, all decisions will be made on this less agonising basis. Langer actually believes there are no right decisions. However much information we gather, we still can’t predict the future. What we can do is turn the choices we do make into positives.

So what if you’ve invited the Cohens with the Levys without doing your due diligence and realising that the Cohens’ Josh dumped the Levys’ Tali two weeks ago… what a wonderful chance for them all to push past that awkward stage. You decided against the rice with carrots and against the potatoes and now there’s nothing to eat with the chicken. Yes, your family might be hungry, but what a great opportunity for a mid-Yom Tov detox.

You get the philosophy. In reality, generally, the consequences of one decision over another won’t involve broigeses or starvation, which should make it even easier to put a positive spin on whatever choices we make.

There’s no question, decision-making is a draining pastime. And, Yom Tov aside, as busy parents we are constantly faced with them. What schools to send to? What days to work? What GCSEs to advise to pick? Having to make choices can zap us of mental energy. Then once we’ve made them, they still haunt us in the post-mortem of whether we’ve made the right one.

But if we are more free and easy with our decisions, the theory is that we then stop feeling guilty about them too. It’s a no-regrets situation. So as a new Jewish year dawns, my mantra going forward is to agonise less over decisions, which seems a very Jewish mindset. It’s all beshert. Hashem will provide. Que sera, sera. OK, that’s Spanish, but there are lots of Jews in Marbella over the summer.

Langer explains that when she has experimented with students and asked them to either say “yes” to everything for a week (within reason) or to make decisions on a totally arbitrary basis, the students have found it to be a positive experience.

In reality I can’t see that saying “yes” to everything will necessarily enrich my life and I’m not sure I have it in me to flip a coin over everything either. Calling “heads” may not be a solid enough reason to pick what school we’ll send my daughter to, for example.

But Langer’s outlook will be ringing in my ears: we can’t predict the outcomes of our decisions and, anyway, outcomes can be perceived as either positives or negatives, depending on perspective.   

And for those smaller decisions a coin might just do the trick. So now that I’ve managed to decide what to make, whom to invite and what to wear in a flash, there’ll be no excuse not to be in shul this year. And as I’m planning on leaving more in the hands of fate this year, a little Rosh Hashanah chat with Hashem won’t go amiss, either.

September 15, 2023 13:11

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