When Good is Good Enough

My dad is infamous in my family for his terrible shopping advice. If you hold up two shirts and ask him to help you decide which one to buy, he’ll say, “Well, if you like them both equally, then it doesn’t matter which one you pick so just pick one!” He is a fantastic and very intelligent person, but he has much to learn about shopping. 

Needless to say, we don’t take him shopping with us very much, and that works out fine for him because he gets impatient with our long decision-making processes. The funny thing is, despite our utter lack of enthusiasm, he has decided that his shopping advice is perfect for any decision that anyone might need to make in life. His most recent use of it, in fact, has been for deciding which graduate school I should attend. No choice is too big or too small for him to (half-jokingly, but also more than a little in earnest) whip out the “if you like them both equally…,” prompting exaggerated groans from whomever happens to be the unfortunate listener. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about my dad’s advice lately. It’s the season of decisions — for high school seniors deciding which colleges to attend, for college seniors attempting to chart their futures as “real adults,” and for “real adults” trying to execute a spring cleaning on their lives. It’s an odd feeling watching prospective students wandering around Swarthmore’s campus, asking questions about class sizes and social life and the dining hall food quality — trying to make the same seemingly life-altering decision that all of us graduating seniors made around four years ago. It’s an odd feeling as my friends and I figure out the paths we’ll walk after graduation, feeling like we’re trying to chart the course of our adult lives without a guidebook. We all want to make the “best” decision. The one that will make us happiest. The one that will fit us just right. And I’ve been wondering if maybe my dad’s advice, terrible as it is for choosing a shirt, might actually be useful. Not in the sense that it doesn’t matter what choices you make. Of course they matter; each choice you make leads to different experiences, and makes you a different person. But I think what he means is that if you have two choices — provided one of them isn’t glaringly worse than the other — you could be perfectly happy with either one. The “best” decision doesn’t really exist.  

Granted, I am no authority on decision-making. In fact, I am historically terrible at adhering to my own advice. When I applied ED to Swarthmore, I spent months agonizing over whether I had made the right choice, even after I was accepted (I know, I’m not exactly the model child for “early decision”). I think back then I subscribed to the “dream school” mentality, believing that there was one perfect place where I would lead the ideal college life and that I would be unhappy anywhere else. 

I’ve been a Swarthmore student for four years, and I think I would’ve been happy at other colleges too — maybe a little happier, maybe a little less happy, I don’t know. It feels useless now to deal in hypotheticals, because I do know I was happy here. I’ve stored away so many memories that make me smile. Long walks in the Crum. Conversations with friends about anything and everything. Belting out orchestral pieces in the dark on the way back to my dorm from rehearsal. Orchestra juice breaks. Consuming a gloriously huge amount of ice cream in Philly. Climbing a tree with my friend and getting covered in sap (sorry, lovely Arboretum staff — we promise we were nice to the tree. We just couldn’t resist; it was so very climbable). Baking many cookies. Playing frisbee on Parrish beach. Lingering for hours over dinner at Sharples, and then Narples. Ending my Photon sessions with a friend by coming up with bad astronomy jokes and then emailing them to our long-suffering professor. Whacking people with foam swords, on several different occasions. Sitting in the Underhill armchairs during golden hour. Trying my first Crumb milkshake. Laughing with friends in the observatory while we tried to take images of an elusive supernova. Knitting hats absolutely everywhere, in every class. Standing still amidst the cherry blossoms. Coming out of a performance or a show and wondering how on earth people here are so talented. Spending a day in class at Bryn Mawr and arriving back at Swarthmore after a very bumpy shuttle ride feeling like I’ve come home. There are unhappy memories too, periods of misery and stress and despair and frustration — but I love the good memories far more than I regret the bad.

One of my very wise friends told me that you can’t make a wrong decision because you grow to make the most of the one you make, and that’s been so helpful to me — to think not about everything I’m missing out on if I don’t choose something, but about all the wonderful things that I do get to experience as a consequence of my choices. My life has grown to encompass juice breaks and cherry blossoms and bad astronomy jokes, and maybe another me in another life would’ve been happier, or happy in a different way, but I still somehow feel sorry for that me who doesn’t have my memories. And in another five or so years, when I’ve finished another stage of my life, hopefully I’ll have accumulated more memories that I feel lucky to have. I don’t want to say that “life is what you make it,” both because that sounds like it belongs in cursive font on one of those beach house decorative signs, and because there really are things that are outside of your control and terrible things that happen to those who don’t deserve it. People’s lives aren’t fairy tales and I’m not talking about any of that “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” nonsense. I have just been trying to see the good that comes out of the choices I myself make and not constantly dwell on how that good could have been better. 

I guess these paragraphs are as much for me as for anyone else who struggles with choices and decisions and feeling like any wrong step could send them down the wrong path forever. I’ve been trying to shake off regret more easily and sort of trust that everything happens for a reason, as my mom likes to say. I don’t know if I believe in fate or God or any other sort of divine presence watching over the universe, but I do think choices can have positive consequences that you can’t quite see yet in the foggy future horizon. Admittedly, I still can’t blithely “just pick one” as my dad so persistently advises. Sometimes I can’t help but perseverate over the pros and cons and the what-ifs. But I think I’m getting better at accepting that even if the shirt I pick isn’t perfect, I’ll still be perfectly fine.

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