I sat looking at page after page of information and wanted to cry. I just wanted a cell phone. I didn’t want a mountain of options, a dozen different plans to choose from, bells and whistles that went on ad nauseam . I just wanted to be able to grab a little phone, push a button and be connected. I didn’t want my phone to calculate, take pictures, send messages, store messages and act like a computer. I already have a camera and a computer, for Pete’s sake.
I just wanted a cell phone that worked. Was that too much to ask? Or too little?
Can too many options, too many decisions about things that have no eternal significance wear us down, drain our energy, leave us worn out when we need to make decisions that really matter? Why do purchases so often involve complex decisions at the very time we long for a simpler life?
A choice that once took five minutes can now take days. Buying something – whether paint for the bedroom (hundreds of tints and shades to choose) or a long-distance plan, is really a trivial matter, yet symbolic of a much deeper issue with eternal consequences.
Is Agency Enhanced By Sheer Numbers of Choices?
Agency is the foundation of Heavenly Father’s plan for us. When people are stripped of their right to choose, life becomes unbearable. We would think, then, that the more choices, the more happiness. Right? Wrong.
Professor Barry Schwartz, author of the book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less , had this to say about choice:
The American ‘happiness quotient’ has been going consistently downhill for more than a generation. . . With all the choices available, we may believe we should never have to settle for things that are just “good enough.” [Such ideas] can lead to dissatisfaction – and, sometimes, paralysis.
This is the paradox: Here we are, living at the pinnacle of human possibility, awash in material abundance. We get what we say we want, only to discover that it doesn’t satisfy us. The success of twenty-first century life turns out to be bittersweet. And I believe that a significant contributing factor is the overabundance of choice” ( Parade magazine, January 4, 2004, pp. 4-5).
If agency is the very basis of God’s plan. How can we explain this phenomenon? It should be no surprise that the adversary would be busily engaged in creating distractions and pitfalls – luring us to use our agency in ways that pull us from our spiritual focus. Remember, he is in the business of multiplying misery (2 Nephi 2:18).
Let me illustrate. I find it easy to be pulled into feeling inadequate and miserable when I can’t figure out the few simple computer things I need to use because my programs are littered with hundreds of options I don’t need and will never use. Other examples: With more than 300 different types of shampoo, conditioner, and mousse on the market, if I believe I have to figure out which kind is really “best” for me. I can make myself miserable and waste precious time on this one tiny trivial decision that could so much better be spent on decisions that really matter. How much time have I spent comparing car insurance plans, health insurance plans? How much emotional energy have I wasted beating myself up when I discover that that a choice really wasn’t the “best” after all?
The glut of choices overwhelms us in more areas than consumer goods and services. We are similarly barraged with a tsunami of career, self-improvement, and recreation options.
The change for women has been most drastic. My own mother was raised in a day when women had about four options: to become a wife, nurse, teacher, or (if higher education was beyond reach as it was for her) domestic help. It would be impossible to list all the career options that women have now. However, many of us would admit that unlimited choices often push us into overload – that too many options more often tyrannize than liberate.
Any of us who have been weighed down with the multiple responsibilities of full-time employment, housekeeping, and raising children laugh at the idea that being in the workforce instead of at home is liberating. Neither is it liberating to be over-scheduled and over-extended with self-improvement activities, treatments, products, and workshops. Neither is it liberating to be so busy trying to take advantage of the hundreds of recreation and entertainment options that we barely have time to breathe.
What Can I Do about Too Many Choices?
So, what’s the solution? The reality is that we are here, in the twenty-first century. We can’t avoid having to choose between about 80-some types of painkillers or 40-some brands of toothpaste. And, of course, we have no desire to go back into the dark ages where women were possessions and role options were nonexistent. And who would complain about our opportunities for recreation and travel and pursuing our interests? So what can we do to avoid the adversary’s trap of falling into misery over too many choices?
Agency gives us the basic right to choose when to choose and how to choose. We don’t need to be caught into the perfectionistic trap of believing there is one “best” brand, one “best choice” one “ideal” career, one “perfect” mate.
We can refuse to waste valuable time and energy on things that don’t matter much. We can decide that price checking two stores is enough, that deciding between three places to eat is enough, and that choosing from a menu of 70 meal choices does not deserve more than five minutes of our time.
We can stick with a long-distance plan that meets our needs and is “good enough” and not be tempted to change every time a salesman promises us something a tiny bit better. (Hidden charges probably make it a wash anyway, and not worth the bother.) We can decide to spend our major time and effort on decisions that have real significance.
We can refuse to buy into the myth that our well-being depends on the myriad choices that “a good economy” provides – whatever “good economy” means. There is absolutely no foundation for the belief that the more money, more things, more options brought by more money, or the more self-made financial “security” we have, the happier we will be.
When I lived in Spain and Algeria (while my first husband was flying mineral and oil survey), I got my first close-up look at the poverty that is the rule rather than the exception in many countries. My biggest surprise was that the people I observed and interacted with, people who had few options, few possessions, far fewer choices than Americans, were happier! Less hurry, worry, and stress. Fewer frowns, less discourtesy, more relaxed enjoyment of the moment. I’ve never forgotten those faces, their kindness, their lack of frantic “doing.”
We can let go of unrealistic expectations.
My mother was one of the most contented people I’ve ever known, and as I grew older I recognized that the primary reason was that she didn’t expect much and appreciated everything. She grew up in poverty, but with a mother who made the best of her circumstances and never whined about being poor.
Mom never thought she would have the chance to marry and have children – so when she did, she never got over being grateful. Never mind that she didn’t have a wedding dress or a reception. She didn’t expect it. Never mind that her husband didn’t consult with her on decisions and brought a boarder home without asking her, or continually brought people home to dinner with no notice. She didn’t expect him to be different than he was.
Never mind that they took few vacations, weren’t “soul-mates” and didn’t learn how to communicate with each other until their latest years. Never mind that she never had a career, and only drove a car few years out of her whole life. She was everlastingly grateful for the blessings of home and family and didn’t waste time worrying that she “didn’t have it all.”
Perhaps the most important part of safeguarding our agency and using it well on choices that matter, is to let go of the myth that we, apart from the guidance of the Spirit, can make good decisions, period.
I don’t believe we need to pray about what brand of corn to buy. However, I do know that when we are in tune, the Lord lets us know what choices are worth spending time on and which are not. Sometimes small mundane temporal decisions have the potential to greatly affect our lives for good or ill. In those cases, I believe He will lead us in the smallest decision through the power of Holy Ghost – if we prepare our minds and hearts to be led:
Angels speak by the power of the Holy Ghost; wherefore, they speak the words of Christ. Wherefore, I said unto you, feast upon the words of Christ; for behold. The words of Christ will tell you all things which ye should do (2 Nephi 32:3).
I want to spend a lot more time feasting on the words of Christ and consulting the Spirit, than perusing advertising, stewing over my choice between twenty different styles of running shoes or recipes, or worrying about whether my choice of computer or pension plan is the “best.”
I want to step away from the craziness of commercialism and materialism and spend most of my time in the peace of His guiding light in my life.
I want to use my agency to further my spiritual growth and to better fit myself for His service – not fritter it away on choices that are inconsequential.
I want to choose the good part (2 Nephi 2:30). In 2 Nephi 2:27 we read:
Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil: for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself.
If I am miserable, chances are very good that I am being deceived by the adversary into using my agency to make poor choices or to focus on choices that don’t matter – that are not essential or part of the path to liberty and eternal life at all.
It is comforting to know that we don’t have to be lured away and made captive by the subtle curse of too many choices. We don’t have to choose a million right priorities. Only one. May we all be like Mary, who chose that one thing needful (Luke 10:42).