Indecisiveness: How Reading about Monsters Helped Me Recognize My Own

This post was written by Emma Belnap, a Humanities Center student fellow.


I have always been an incredibly indecisive person, something that I consider one of my biggest character flaws. Chalk it up to my perfectionism and being so worried that I’ll make a wrong decision that I won’t make one at all, but I am the friend that will always make someone else decide where we are going for dinner. It was with this mindset that I read Claire Dederer’s Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma last year. In this book, Dederer presents the question: what do we do with problematic artists? This is a question I had been thinking about for years, and I opened Monsters with the expectation that I would find a definitive guide of what to do with the Picassos and Polanskis of the world, a case-by-case study of which artists to keep and which to dump.

Imagine my horror when I realized a few chapters in that it would not be that kind of book at all! In fact, I quickly realized that Dederer posed more of her own questions than she answered. Every chapter, she considered a different problematic artist, asking insightful, probing questions to prompt the reader’s consideration, yet she carefully skirted any conclusions about how we should deal with their work. Originally, I was frustrated by her approach. Didn’t she know that I was reading so she would give me answers to the very questions she asked? Did she not realize how woefully indecisive I am? The more I read, though, the more I realized that she was offering me something much more meaningful than answers: she was teaching me how to think about these issues and find the answers for myself.

Looking back on that experience, what stands out to me is how willing I was to give up my agency for a quick and easy solution. Maybe I didn’t want to engage in mental work to draw personal conclusions, or maybe I just didn’t know how with this particular topic. Either way, reading Monsters was a wake-up call for me. It taught me that I could no longer abandon my ability to choose so easily, no matter how anxious I was about the outcome. That theme is one that has been continually emphasized in my life since then, and I hope reflecting on my struggles and studies will help you gain your own insights.

From the beginning, agency has been a principle essential to life on earth; one of the first commandments God gave Adam and Eve accounted for their agency. He told them, “Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat, But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it, nevertheless, thou mayest choose for thyself, for it is given unto thee” (Moses 3:16-17, emphasis added). We, like Adam and Eve, have also been given the power to choose, and it is one of our greatest gifts. One of our charges in this life is to learn how to use this power, and God expects us to do so deliberately and wisely.

With that in mind, now I realize that even if Dederer had defined which artists were too monstrous to be redeemed, that would only account for the problematic artists up to the time she had written the book. How could I reckon with artists who did something problematic after she wrote the book? And how would I account for all of the artists she doesn’t address? The only conclusion Dederer presents in Monsters is that everyone needs to decide for themselves. Like a good teacher, she provided principles for how to guide this process, but allows the reader to determine what constitutes unforgivable behavior according to their own ethical code. What’s more, she provides grace in that process. Recognizing the deeply moving nature of art, Dederer acknowledges that there are problematic artists each of us can’t give up, and that’s okay! We are allowed to choose, to change our minds, then change them back, but the important thing is that we decide for ourselves.

One thing that has helped me to become more deliberate in my decision-making process is reading the work of others who consider the issue of agency. Since watching The Good Place a few years ago, I have become an armchair philosopher, specifically of Aristotelian Virtue Ethics. In this system, Aristotle advocates for a practice-based philosophy wherein we are continually trying to find the balance between a virtue and a vice. Some situations may require that we act with more of a certain vice, others with more of a certain virtue, and we spend our lives finding the balance between the two in individual situations. To put it simply, Aristotle’s theory is all about choice, and continuing to choose to become better. Perhaps this is why I like it; it forces me to make choices but frames it in a way that helps my brain realize that I am doing so to become a more intentional person.

Despite this reassurance, I still often need something to soothe my decision-adverse brain. As with much wisdom in life, I discovered that comfort in the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim. In a pivotal scene in his classic musical Sunday in the Park with George, a character reflects on an experience she had in her youth, singing the lines, “I chose, and my world was shaken—so what? The choice may have been mistaken. The choosing was not” (“Move On,” Sunday in the Park with George). These are words I repeat to myself whenever I am facing a decision I do not want to make. Those lyrics reaffirm that making a choice will always be the better path. Every time I exercise my God-given gift of choice, slowly but purposefully, I can overcome my paralyzing predilection to indecisiveness. In choosing this, what I am really choosing is to become more of the person I would like to be.

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