How to Avoid Being a Buridan's Ass

Published: 02nd July 2014 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 02nd July 2014 12:55 AM   |  A+A-

The fascination for self-help books, especially on decision-making, is thriving. As many people fight shy of taking decisions, psychotherapists and counsellors are on spotlight. Many procrastinate on important decisions in life, leaving themselves at a crossroads. Experts feel the fear of wrong decisions causes the vacillation. The medieval Spanish-Jewish philosopher Maimonides was once prompted in saying, “The risk of a wrong decision is preferable to the terror of indecision.”

A friend with similar symptoms sought the assistance of a psychotherapist. After hours of counselling, a few exercises on decision-making were given. To his dismay, he flustered. It emerged that the fear of failure had hindered his decision-making as he was afraid of “failing” with the therapist himself! Subsequently, he was encouraged to take only “wrong” decisions and deliberately “fail” to condition the mind for failures. He was encouraged on decision-making and to accept results, negative and positive, on an equal footing. He began taking decisions, improving in cognitive faculties, and on a test check, it transpired that what he perceived as “wrong” decisions were in fact found to be taken by many other normal people. This indecisive man was gradually pulled out of his impasse. Experience guides us that in every gamut of activity, people who have failed most become wiser by the day. Wrong decisions are an opportunity for introspection and correct mistakes.

On the contrary, indecision is worse than a wrong decision and in some cases, with morbid consequences. The Buridan’s Ass allegory is referred to by psychologists as it reflects the dilemma of choice. Standing before two equally good bales of hay, so the story goes, the ass could not choose one and finally starved itself to death. The donkey—though a symbolical narrative—could have chosen a course of action out of the two situations. Ironically, it did not. The premise may be flawed but the moral is clear—you are a master of your own decision and destiny.

Poet laureate Robert Frost alludes to this in his poem, The Road Not Taken. The poem consists of four stanzas of five lines each. Frost embraces the dilemma of choice, of travelling in a forked two road junction and the predicament of choosing one over the other. Deciding on the choice of road to “travel”, he avers to defend it in future. The conviction is revealed in the last stanza: “…I shall be telling this with a sigh/Somewhere ages and ages hence:/Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—/I took the one less traveled by,/And that has made all the difference.”

When confronted with two equal choices, the poet chooses one and positively accepts his decision as the best for the future, without delving whether it will be good or bad. The poet justifies his intent, at the decision-making itself.

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