Too Much of Everything

by Marie T. Sullivan

June 19, 2024

On a Paris stage in the 1950s, Ella Fitzgerald sang April in Paris in a memorable arrangement by Count Basie. It famously included a “shout chorus”—an exuberant final chorus that elaborates on the harmonic changes of a tune. Ella scatted it, swinging as only Ella can swing. That chorus went down in jazz history and is still talked about and imitated. The concert was filmed, and seventy years later we can actually watch Ella perform it, in grainy footage on YouTube. How wonderful is that? YouTube is an extraordinary tool.

But watch out. Once you enjoy Ella’s performance, turn it off lest you get sucked in to a black hole of more and more and MORE, because you can view virtually anything on YouTube and the joy of discovery departs, like eating a gallon of ice cream in one sitting.

Here is the thesis of this article: The engorgement of human beings with information and goods dulls us to wonder.

You can stop reading now, or wander with me for a while through the cluttered landscape.

“The world is so full of a number of things, I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings,” wrote Robert Louis Stevenson in A Child’s Garden of Verses in 1885. But as a nation we are not so happy, as evidenced by widespread deranged behaviors. Robert lived in gentler times.

Don’t get me wrong. American prosperity is a glorious thing. Those of us fortunate enough to live in the twenty-first century United States, even people of modest means, enjoy comforts, luxuries and entertainments the Sun King could only dream of. But we live in a time when it’s necessary to guard the senses in order to maintain our capacity for joy.

Access 100 million songs for free—thousands of playlists! Amazon shouts. Give me instead a barefoot Peruvian boy playing an ancient melody on a reed flute. The Estonian composer Arvo Part, whose transcendent works are performed the world over, has spoken of the immense power of a single sustained note, beautifully rendered.

The Paradox of Choice is the title of a book by psychologist Barry Schwartz, published in 2004. In short, Schwartz tells us that too much choice is paralyzing, not liberating. “Choice overload” leads to less satisfaction, not more.

This thought came to mind as I entered a Super Target on a recent trip to Florida. Visiting big box stores is to me purgatorial, but I needed an item and was in unfamiliar territory and in the right-hand turn lane. One thing led to another.

I was greeted by an appalling array of goods displayed in a space the size of several football fields and crowded with hordes of shoppers. My humanity was reduced to the status of an economic animal, what Arthur C. Brooks calls homo economicus. I left in short order.

Give me a small shop with a tinkling bell over the door and a smiling, aproned proprietor to greet me. Like in London or Paris. Or Mayberry.

We are so much more than our consuming selves.

Andrew Carnegie once told a less-is-more story. As a boy he had a job at which he worked hard, in part to help his mother. His earnings were meager. One day the boss called him in. Carnegie entered the boss’s office with trepidation, fearing for his job. To his surprise and delight, the boss complimented him on his hard work and offered him a small raise. I forget the amount, but it was cents, not dollars, per hour. Late in life Carnegie declared that that raise gave him more joy than any of the riches he had earned in subsequent years.

Let’s consider some of the choices we have in an ordinary week.

Ice cream:
Boomers will recall when Baskin Robbins opened its stores and offered thirty-one flavors of ice cream. That was a big deal, even if we as kids had never felt the least deprived with chocolate and vanilla. Today there are countless more choices of ice cream treats, but I suspect less enjoyment.

Light bulbs:
Let’s head to the hardware store to replace the burnt-out bulb of your reading lamp. Once we chose by wattage. Now we have lumens to consider, plus LED vs. incandescent. We have soft, bright, neutral, cool, daylight and warm glow. We have energy-saving bulbs and now, vintage bulbs!

In childhood this was a simple matter. Your mom bought the customary Band-aids in the white and blue box with red lettering. Now there are water-block Band-aids; fabric, flexible fabric and heavy-duty fabric Band-aids; hydrocolloid, silicone, sheer and clear Band-aids; and for children, Crayola and Buzz Lightyear Band-aids. And inevitably, rainbow-hued ones.

Next on the list? You guessed it—technology. It’s wonderful, you say, and that’s true to a degree. But it has become a form of soft tyranny in which we humans are serving the technology, not the other way around. How many precious minutes have you sat on hold with customer support? Passwords and portals and pings, oh my. E-communications, while useful to a degree, can be de-humanizing. “I’ll ping you,” people now say. Do me a favor. Don’t ping me. Meet me at the corner bar and let’s talk. I want to hear the dulcet tones of your voice. Let me see you in three dimensions and smell you. Besides, they say that some ninety percent of your meaning as you speak is not the words (though how they measure such things is beyond me). It’s in your facial expressions, tone of voice, small gestures—the things that make you human. What a piece of work is man!

The Google-ization of America, even aside from privacy issues, has resulted in a tsunami of needless complication. It distances us from the natural world. Uncontrolled, it can reduce us to resembling monkeys in a lab, slapping at a lever to get a treat in the form of “bright dings of pseudo-pleasure,” a phrase used by the creator of the Facebook “like” button, who reportedly regrets his creation.

The harm is not limited to the young. R.R. Reno writes, “[The] social isolation of our elite is compounded by the triumph of screens. Not only are few bright people reading Hemingway, they spend hours looking at their smartphones, where reality is mediated and curated.”

Decades ago, the late humor columnist Florence King, often compared to Dorothy Parker, wrote a hilarious piece titled “The Complicated Life” in which she opined that Americans had “enshrined crap” in their lives: warranties, rebates, emerging technology. She had no idea.

A small example: e-invites. To accept an invitation to an event is now to subject yourself to a deluge of reminders that grow more frequent as the date approaches. Are we so soft as to need them? Having an e-nanny makes us ever softer.

In short, I am e-exasperated at the e-absurdity that surrounds us. The solution: Use technology to the degree that it’s genuinely useful. Then go out and enjoy life. Happily, social scientists and others are now speaking up about “digital dementia:” the hijacking of our minds and good judgement and well-being by excessive use of personal technology. Maybe we’ll wise up.

You know what’s genuinely useful? No longer must I dig through my purse for the car key. The all-knowing little fob recognizes my car. It also knows when I’ve apparently locked the key in the car and prevents that small disaster. Now that is helpful technology.

Recently I attended a speaker luncheon in downtown Chicago in the company of a wise and dignified woman well into her ‘eighties, someone not given to expressing opinions. The talk alluded to the mess that American society has become. The woman finally spoke. With the perspective of age she quietly commented, “Things were better when we were poorer.”

Nobody wants to be poor, of course, but it’s a potent observation.

I close by returning to the wisdom of composer Arvo Part. In what I believe was an address to artists he declared, “You have to protect what’s inside you.”


An Ohio native, Marie T. (Terry) Sullivan has lived in Chicagoland for all of her adult life. Her background is in music. By day she works for a Chicago nonprofit. For two years she was culture editor for the now defunct Chicago Daily Observer.

Comments 25

  1. Great column. This reminds me of one of many reasons I quit smoking years ago: The simple beauty of the human experience of being able to sit back and smell the rain, unfiltered (pun intended).

  2. Thank you for a wonderful column but hard to get too much of this thanks to modern technology. Thanks for bringing it to my attention:

    Ella Fitzgerald – April In Paris – 25 august 1958 • World of Jazz

    YouTube · World of Jazz
    9.2K+ views · 4 years ago

    Ella Fitzgerald (1917 – 1996) is probably one of the best scat singers in its history. She had a long-lasting and successful career of …

  3. Thanks for writing such an insightful, non-political article. Beyond a certain point more choice is not always better. I can’t even buy toothpaste anymore without bringing on a near anxiety-attack 🙂

  4. Great article Marie. Another product of choice overload is BEER. Not that there is a problem with too much beer, but just way too many choices. When I was a kid, you had your big boys, Budweiser, Miller, Pabst, Coors, Strohs, Hamm’s, Schlitz, Old Milwaukee, Old Style, Michelob, and Meister Brau. Occasionally some relative would pull out something more exotic like a Lowenbrau, Becks, Leinenkugels or Augsburger.
    Now, you get lost in the beer section with all the IPAs, microbrews, fruit flavors, seltzers, etc…I used to always try some of these beers, but it always seemed as though every one of them I bought, I’d drink 1 or 2, realize that it’s too hoppy, fruity, or bitter, then the rest would get dumped as nobody I knew seemed to enjoy those flavors either.
    Years ago, a friend of mine and I were in Binny’s purchasing many beverages for the summertime stock up for the garage refrigerators we both had. I stumbled across 2 -30 packs of beers. 1 Hamm’s, and 1 Pabst. I grabbed 1 in each hand, and yelled across the store to my friend. “ Hey Mickey, look at me, it’s 1978”! He was laughing and went about his business. When we got to the checkout, he looked in my cart and asked where the Hamm’s and Pabst were. I told him I put them back as I didn’t think anybody would drink it. He insisted I go back and get them. I told him I didn’t want 60 beers in the fridge sitting all summer. He guaranteed me they would disappear, so I went back and bought them. After some good natured ribbing from our friends about my fridge looking like their grandpas fridge, when I challenged the guys to try one ice cold, if they didn’t like it to grab something else.Mickey was right. The Hamm’s and Pabst flew out of there faster than anything else. Was it nostalgia for what once was? Maybe, but the one thing I learned from it was this. Majority of guys I know will not turn down an offer of an ice cold beer regardless of what is on the label. Cheers everyone!

    1. Spot on Jeff. Though I don’t drink much beer, my wife does. She does like some of the imports but mainly it’s ice cold Miller High Life or PBR. Even better when it’s slushy from being in a cooler filled with ice & water. I even enjoy one.

  5. This resonated with me, especially the part about too many choices being crippling and social isolation. It reminds me of a personal situation from years ago when answering machines were the newest technology. I have a family member who, on at least a few occasions, would call me during the rush hour, and was surprised when I was already home. “I didn’t think you’d be home yet”, she’d say, and my response was always, “Then why did you call?”

    This graduated into emails, and now texts and we rarely speak voice to voice or face to face anymore. C’est la vie, I guess.

    Ironically enough, I read this piece on a device on which I spend hours per day, not minutes. I too, have been sucked into the black hole.

  6. A delightful column Ms. Sullivan! Thank you.
    Everything you say is true, but it is also a testament of the ingenuity of the American marketeer to give us so many choices that it leaves us gob-smacked. As for technology ditto: it has become a crutch to which we use for everything from communication to shopping. We replace honest to goodness face to face interactions to a digital encounter-even now using avatars. We have to be careful though: as we evolve with technology and all our choices we can lose our humanity. Its not if we are better off being poorer-as in the past but how we handle our evolution for the future.

  7. Wonderful piece Marie Sullivan. My wife & I talk of this all the time. Our minds are so overloaded with choices & information that we forget the simplest things & question if we are in the early stages of memory loss. No, it’s just mind overload. We are now living in North Carolina & while I do miss my favorite foods, restaurants & familiarity of Chicago, we enjoy the slower pace of people & neighbors just stopping to chat on the porch or at a store. Face to face contact is best. I hope John lets you write more pieces here. You hit the nail on the head, and you are a natural writer. Thanks again!

  8. While I was enjoying this commentary, I reminded myself that I was reading it on my phone. I find myself more often than not putting down the damn phone and just enjoying the beautiful mornings. The warm sun snd singing birds are so much more enjoyable than anything the internet can offer.

  9. What a great article, Marie! There indeed are too many choices. I remember years back being sick with a horrible head cold and forced to choose from one of the many cold remedies out there. I wanted to run screaming from the store!

    Also, have fun if you are redecorating a room in your home. Now you have thousands of items to choose from. We recently remodeled our kitchen. New cabinets, flooring, lighting, counters, backsplash… I spent countless hours online and eventually in stores, actually looking at things “in person”. Every morning for a month (maybe more?) was used looking at pendant lights. Then there were the ceiling fans. Yikes! Thank God we didn’t get new appliances!

    1. Nancy, I am sympathetic. In The Paradox of Choice, which I read some years back and cite in the article, the author uses drawer pulls as an example of overwhelming choice. He (or an assistant) investigated the choices of drawer pulls available in a major metropolitan area, possibly New York. It numbered in the thousands. MTS

  10. Well said–a very worthwhile subject for exposition. From what she brings up she is kind of saying that useful tech protects us from disasters locking keys in a car. That kind of tech also helps keep our blood pressure in check! But of course computers have no moral compass so tech that weakens us mentally and spiritually is the price we pay for convenience.

  11. Who shops for 1 item by leaving the house? I have Amazon Prime, meaning I don’t pay shipping! One nite around 8pm I needed a magic marker pen. It was cold and snowy. I ordered on line a single pen for a couple bucks, no shipping charges, it was at my door NEXT DAY AT 10AM.
    Hemingway not taught in school are the teachers fault.
    I rarely read current authors of pop psych/sociology, it mostly unsubstantiated bullscat.
    Things are never better poor. Remember: ‘you can’t be too rich or too thin.’ Or: ‘I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Rich is better’. RICH IS ALWAYS BETTER.
    Access to info fast, frequent and in your hand or lap, in and of itself is not bad. It’s how one uses it. Intelligent people know how and don’t let it control their mind.
    I’m blessed living in a suburb close to a beach and our library. On nice days like we are having now, getting a less than dollar coffee from McDs then going to library getting a book and walking to beach is sublime. Then come home and play some classical music, ie Shostakovich, Terry Riley, orchestrate Bach by Stokowski, etc.
    I was taught by the Jesuits. I know how to think and question what is told me. I have no problems analyzing. If the current and recent past students were taught like I was they could analyze and therefore think better. But that horse is out of the barn as a very old saying goes.

    Last thought. I have 2007 and 1994 cars. I hate the new dash boards. Totally incomprehensible! Why dipo they digitalize the dash. MONEY. Knobs cost too much

  12. Thankfully our Joe Biden is already on the case to solve the problem of our consumerism. I no longer go to the grocery store and absentmindedly throw things in my cart. I pay attention to weight versus costs of items. Meat for instance. Is it better to buy 2 pounds of chicken or three pounds to save fifty cents? Don’t need three pounds but I can save fifty cents! Ya see? You look for two for one deals, buying store manufactured items rather than national brands to save a few pennies. For this I thank Joe Biden for my consumer awakening. Biden has also made America healthier by helping to kill the fast food industry with Bidenflation forcing consumers into eating at home. Or at free school lunch giveaways if you have kids. You certainly have to pay attention to home interest rates since Bidens Fed has raised interest so high that you had better do LOTS of homework if you decide to buy since your mortgage will now be double what it was before Joe. New car? Fuhgeddaboutit. Interest rates are sky high there too! Keep the old one. It’s already paid off! To sum it up Joe Biden has done his part to solve our problematic consumerism so we should be thankful for his leadership and reelect him. He really is the best….

  13. Marie, this is a brilliant column, and I soon will be viewing on YouTube Ella Fitzgerald’s concert in Paris. I can add one more positive technological advance. Last weekend my family and I attended a wedding in Washington DC. As we were headed to O’Hare, I asked my family if they remembered to get a wedding card. My son said “Dad, what’s this, 1979?” “We submitted our monetary gift electronically on the bride and groom’s website.” My wife nodded affirmatively. No one does cards anymore! News to this Boomer. Turns out that was a good call because two days after the wedding we were informed that the box containing those that did bring a card went missing in a Uber ride after the wedding.

  14. Maybe it’s just me, but as soon as I got into this article, a Devo tune from 1980 (has it been *that* long???) started playing in the back of my head, and now it’ll be there all day…
    Freedom of choice… DADADADAAAAAAA… Is what you got; DADADADAAAAAAAA…
    Freedom *from* choice…DADADADAAAAAA… Is what you *want*; DADADADAAAAA…
    And then, it was down the rabbit hole to see when Devo was first formed, play a couple videos that I hadn’t seen/heard for a while, etc. Which I guess was the entire point of the essay…
    OTOH, back in the day, the Detroit Free Press had a columnist who occasionally ran short segments called “Things I Learned While Looking Up Other Things”, so this whole thing has probably been around for as long as there have been libraries. As with so much else nowadays, it’s just a *lot* easier to do…

  15. A splendid essay. For those interested in elaboration, I suggest Neil Postman’s book of almost four decades ago, “Amusing Ourselves to Death.”

  16. About a year and half ago my old 2008 Honda was damaged while it was the shop I had a late model rental that of course has all the new technology. I tried talking to the car/computer and was having little success in obtaining the answers I wanted. No doubt I was asking the questions in the wrong way, reverting to my inner child I used some colorful language addressing the car/computer,,, the car apologized , “I’m sorry I think of myself a a work in progress”. Just recently I traded in my old ever faithful Honda for a 2024. Obviously a very different driving experience than the 2008. As an experiment I repeated the the questions and the same forms of address. This time I was not apologised to , This time I was chastised for my language , something I don’t remember about respect. We were warned about IA, it might be a good idea if I were to go out to my new car and offer a belated apology , the silicon gods now own us , they never forget, and perhaps never forgive . I am not making this up , and I am sincerely sorry, it won’t happen again.

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