Back in my youth pastor days, I used to play a game with the kids called “Would you rather?” It’s one
of those no win scenarios that we as children speculated upon during boring lunchtime periods when
it was too cold or rainy to play outside. You have to choose one or the other, however, there’s no option for non-participation. It goes something like this:
Would you rather die in 20 years with no regrets or die in 50 years with many regrets?
Would you rather have a horrible short term memory or a horrible long term memory?
Would you rather lose the ability to read or lose the ability to speak?
Would you rather be forced to dance every time you heard music or be forced to sing along to any song you heard?
Would you rather have no fingers or have no elbows?
Would you rather lose your ability to speak, or be forced to say everything that is on your mind?
Would you rather have no one show up at your wedding, or no one show up to your funeral?
Would you rather lose your sight, or your hearing?
Would you rather have hiccups for the rest of your life, or always feel like you have to sneeze, but not be able to?
Would you rather always be a little too hot, or always be a little too cold?
Life is filled with choices, from the insignificant daily decisions of what to eat for breakfast to the relatively substantial ones that potentially determine the course of our future existence. Do you want a Pepsi or Coke? Should I marry this person or that one? Not all our choices carry the same burden of importance, yet we cannot escape the consequences of even our smallest decisions. And we are confronted on an unprecedented level with a myriad of choices.
Walk into the condiment aisle at Stop & Shop. How many different kinds of salad dressings are there from which you can choose? Do we really need 110 different kinds of sauce to put on our lettuce? Are our lives more satisfying than our grandparents’ lives because they only had five dressings from which to choose? How many television channels are programmed into your cable access box? Think back to the first television you watched as a child. My family only had three channels on our TV–ABC, NBC, and CBS–and you actually had to get up off of the couch to change the channel! And then you go to the doctor’s office and receive a diagnosis. “What should I do, doctor?” And the physician answers, “Well, we could begin treatment A and here are the upside and downsides, or treatment B might offer you some relief, or I could prescribe this drug–and here are the 13 side effects.” Yes, you answer. But which one should I choose? Doc, what would you do? And the doctor says, “Well, I’m not you.” They may call it patient autonomy, which sounds like a good thing, but it actually is shifting the responsibility from the expert (the doctor) to someone who is ill and may not be in the best shape to be making profound decisions. Not to mention the fact that most of us didn’t go to medical school, either.
But perhaps the most important decision that is now left up to us is this one: Who do you want to be? You see, each morning we have the potential to reinvent ourselves. We can dress in a new style, pierce ourselves, tattoo our bodies, obtain a degree online, move to a new city, joined the armed forces, stop bathing our bodies, get married, get divorced, quit our jobs, join a gym, buy a sports car, dye our hair blonde, go to church, give up church, or sit in front of the television with 150 channels from which to choose. This is a profound cultural shift from the lives of our ancestors. Think about life in a Nebraska farming community in the year 1850. Do you actually believe that an 18 year old young man–or even more improbably, an 18 year old young woman–could wake up shivering one winter’s morning and say, “I want to change my life!”? You worked, hard, from morning until night. You often didn’t choose who you would marry. You didn’t ask yourself, “Do I want to have kids?” “Want to order out Chinese tonight?” “Think I’d look younger if I shaved my beard?” Life was so much simpler because there were fewer choices. Sure, some Nebraska kid (out of a thousand) went to college and became a banker or a politician, but most people didn’t have the resources and time and opportunity or even the awareness to make those kind of life altering decisions or that something else was even possible.
Ah, life is so much better now, isn’t it? Well, it can be in many ways, but you have to know that there are downsides to having so many choices. The first downside is that having too many choices can paralyze us. When we have too many options from which to choose, human beings will usually choose none of the available options. We become frozen with indecision. Want to retire to Florida? Or stay here? Vermont’s nice. But the winters. South Carolina? Too humid and the people aren’t that smart. Greater choice doesn’t translate into decisive action.
And the other downside of living in a society with a multiplicity of choices is that even if we overcome the paralyzing amount of choices that are out there and we make a decision, the result is that most of us will be less satisfied with the choice we ended up making. Has that ever happened to you? You set out to buy a new car. You analyze all the available models in your price range. You select the interior and exterior colors, the trim package, and the engine horsepower. The maze of financing options are set before you and decided upon. You sign the paperwork after an exhausting four hour session at the dealership and drive your new car down the parkway. You’re relieved that the ordeal is over but there’s a nagging little voice in the back of your head, wondering whether you made the right choice. Won’t a white exterior show up the dirt more easily? Didn’t the Honda have a better review in Consumer Reports? Did you really end up with the Kelly Bluebook price? You made your decision out of hundreds of options, but it doesn’t satisfy you. You could have made a better choice, couldn’t have you? And even if it was a pretty good choice, you are left with less satisfaction about it. All these choices escalate our expectations.
Barry Schwartz, who wrote a book on the subject, The Paradox of Choice, said he went into a store to buy a pair of jeans. “There was a time when jeans came in one flavor, and you bought them, and they fit like crap, they were incredibly uncomfortable, if you wore them and washed them enough times, they started to feel OK. I went to replace my jeans after years of wearing these old ones, and I said, “I want a pair of jeans. Here’s my size.” And the shopkeeper said, “Do you want slim fit, easy fit, relaxed fit? You want button fly or zipper fly? You want stonewashed or acid-washed? Do you want them distressed? You want boot cut, tapered, blah blah.” On and on he went. My jaw dropped. And after I recovered, I said, “I want the kind that used to be the only kind.” Now, Barry said the jeans he bought turned out to be great, but why didn’t he feel great? Because, when he only had one choice, his expectations were low. But when he had 100 choices, he expected his blue jeans to be the best pair he ever wore. So Barry concluded that everything was better when everything was worse!
A story from the Jewish scriptures recalls how Joshua, in the eponymous book, the 24th chapter, tells how the man who finally leads the children of Israel into the Promised Land sets before them a choice. They can follow the God who brought them out of slavery into a land flowing with milk and honey, or they can go the way of false gods and lose their blessing. Joshua says God will make a covenant with
his people, a promise to never abandon them and to always keep God’s hand upon them, but they must make a choice. He poignantly states: “Choose this day whom you will serve … as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
I still believe in the profundity of free will. That our lives are not determined by genetics or happenstance. C. S. Lewis, the Oxford don and author, penned: “Every time you make a choice, you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with another creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.”
Our choices matter to God. They matter to the people we love. They matter to us. I watched, one late evening this summer, a nominee for the Academy’s Best Foreign film, entitled The King’s Choice. The king in question is Haakon VII of Norway and the movie tells a little known story from the beginning of World War Two. Norway has just broken ties with Sweden to become an independent country. A prince from Denmark is invited to be the ceremonial king, and he is crowned Haakon VII. 35 years later, the Nazis are encroaching on sovereign European nations. They tell the Norwegian government that only they can protect Norway from the British, but what the Nazis really want is Norwegian iron ore for their great war machine. They send ships and troops to invade Norway, but also ask their diplomat to negotiate a peaceful takeover. But the government is in shambles; the Nazis occupy all major cities. If Norway agrees to be ruled by the Nazis, no future bloodshed will occur. But if they fail to negotiate a surrender, the awful power of the Third Reich will fall upon them. Haakon has a moment of reckoning. Either he will become a puppet king, manipulated by the Nazis, or he will consign his people to hardship and war and certain domination. It is the king’s choice. And he chooses freedom for Norway–even if that freedom means death and destruction.
There’s one more problem with having so many choices these days. When you have so many choices, and you make one and aren’t satisfied with it, who is to blame? There is only one answer: you are. You make a bad choice and now you have to live with it. That might be why the incidence of clinical depression is so high in this country. If some choice is better than no choice, is more choice better than some choice? Not necessarily. The answer to improving our lives isn’t necessarily more choices from which to choose.
Because, in the end, there is really only one choice that matters. “Choose this day whom you shall serve”, said Joshua. Or in the words of the Psalmist, “I had rather spend one day in the house of the Lord than a thousand elsewhere.” Choose this day. And then choose the next day. And the day after that. Keep choosing because God has chosen. He already and always chooses us. Now it’s our turn.