Decision Making With Lionel Shriver

Knowing the right thing to do is something that I have been thinking about a lot recently. This isn’t so much a moral musing, more my thoughts on decision making. One only gets one life, and of course we want to do the best we can with it, but how can you know whether you are making the right choice for you?

I think the difficulty with life – once you realise it’s never going to be perfect – is deciding how much to strive for perfection, or if not perfection then something close to it. New Year’s resolutions are a prime example of this. Most years I come up with a long list that includes such things as learning German, or playing my piano more. Why do I do this though? Do I enjoy learning languages and practicing the piano? Clearly not. If I did, I would be doing it already. In fact, what I want is to be someone that can speak fluent German and play the piano beautifully, I suppose were I to keep the resolution, I would become that person, but I don’t. I abandon my resolutions to read or watch tv, and then I feel depressed that I have let myself down. In fact, my resolution has made me less happy, not more.

Then there is my relationship. There are more pros and cons to this than any other area of my life, and it feels impossible to weight them against each other. I am trying to second guess future Laura, and decide what will make her happy, whilst also trying to second guess current Laura. There are so many considerations, and ending the relationship would be terribly sad, but does that mean we should stay together? Very much overthinking the thing.

Happily, literature has come to my rescue. At the moment I’m doing a lot of walking in preparation for my Machu Picchu trip and I’m using the libraries of Leeds to plan my routes. This does not mean that I’m consulting books about walks – rather, I am being a library tourist and planning my walks around them. One of the books I acquired is by Lionel Shriver of We Need To Talk About Kevin fame. (Incidentally, people interested in books should really check out the BBC World Book Club – http://www.bbc.co.uk/search?q=World%20Book%20Club – where I heard a very interesting episode on this book.) However, this book is The Post-Birthday World.

It centres on Irina, an American/Russian expat living in London with Lawrence, her partner of ten years. They are friends with a famous snooker player named Ramsey and have a tradition of getting together on Ramsey’s birthday. This particular year Lawrence is away and Irina and Ramsey go out to dinner together. A latent attraction becomes more and more pronounced over the course of the evening and towards the end, Irina feels an urge to kiss Ramsey. At this point the narrative splits into two. In one half she gives into the urge and enters into a relationship with Ramsey, and in the other, she resists and remains with Lawrence.

The format reminded me of Sliding Doors, save for the fact that in Sliding Doors, the right man is very clear. If I’m honest, that’s probably what I was looking for – some sort of universal sign telling me where to go. Of course, Lionel Shriver is a good writer, so that’s not what happened. In both halves there were good and bad moments, and in fact Irina ended up in pretty much the same place in the end, although her route there was very different. I suppose I could have found that upsetting, given that I was looking for enlightenment, but I actually found that quite comforting. It’s a very similar concept to the central question of We Need To Talk About Kevin – whether he is innately bad or whether nurture led him to do what he did. If he is innately bad, then Eva (his mother) is absolved of responsibility, but if nurture was the problem…

It’s a conundrum. Really, I think what we all want is to be able to witness the consequences of our decision making before making the decision, but of course that’s simply not possible. All we can do is do our best. Ultimately though, no decision alone can make or break my life. It might change it, but it will not ruin it. And that, I think, is a very important thing to bear in mind.

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