My parents came to visit for a few days over the July 4th holiday. We began their visit with dinner at a local restaurant and concluded their time by getting ice cream cones. These two experiences that bookended our time together were both laden with the challenge to make a choice from among many options.
The ice cream shop we visited is one of those classic places that makes its own ice cream on-site and has dozens of flavor options. Not to mention everything from cookies and cream to chocolate almond, there are choices about whether to have the ice cream in a dish or a cone. And if it’s a cone, should it be a regular cone, sugar cone, or waffle cone?
Within the first few licks of my banana strawberry cone, I said to my wife, “I almost got the watermelon water ice. Maybe I should have done that.” It wasn’t that the banana strawberry cone tasted badly. In fact, it was good. In response, my wife wondered also about her flavor selection. It went something like, “This is good, but…” Does any of this sound familiar?
Perhaps you are also familiar with opening the menu at a restaurant and finding that so many of the items listed sound good. We go back and forth between several possible selections finally narrowing it down to two or three. Then we just have to pick one and go with it. How often have we, after placing our order, begun to wonder if we made the right choice?
Thinking about all the options from which we have to choose, how many colors of wall paint are there? Do we really need 47 varieties of toothpaste? How do I know which fragrance of shampoo to get this time? Even before getting to the restaurant and having to sort through the menu, there is the matter of deciding at which restaurant you want to eat.
As we sat there at the ice cream shop licking our ice cream cones and second guessing our selections, we began to talk about how we needed to stop worrying about what we should or could have chosen and just simply focus on enjoying what we did choose and the time we had together. The conversation reminded me of an insightful book entitled The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less (Barry Schwartz).
Schwartz opens the book with this summary of the paradox inherent in burgeoning choices:
There is no denying that choice improves the quality of our lives. It enables us to control our destinies and to come close to getting exactly what we want out of any situation. Choice is essential to autonomy, which is absolutely fundamental to well-being. Healthy
people want and need to direct their own lives.
On the other hand, the fact that some choice is good doesn’t necessarily mean that more choice is better. …there is a cost to having an overload of choice. As a culture, we are enamored of freedom, self-determination, and variety, and we are reluctant to give up any of our options. But clinging tenaciously to all the choices available to us
contributes to bad decisions, to anxiety, stress, and dissatisfaction…
Has the pursuit of happiness through unbridled, unchecked capitalism and consumerism actually prevented us from truly being happy? Has, as Schwartz contends in his book, the culture of abundance robbed us of satisfaction?
Given that prosperity, abundance, and burgeoning opportunities are not the key to happiness, does that mean the key to happiness is the absence of these? No. Because contentedness is not about how much we do or don’t have. It is not about whether we have an iPhone 3 or iPhone 4, or even if we have an iPhone at all. It is not about whether we have 5 or 50 menus options, whether we have 3 or 30 ice cream flavors from which to choose.
Contentment is a quality formed in the soul that is independent of circumstance. The Scriptures demonstrate that we can learn the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether living in plenty or in want. (Philippians 4:12) No doubt, being surrounded by a culture of stuff makes the formation of this inner quality more challenging. This is also why the Scriptures direct those with abundance to be rich in good deeds, generous, and willing to share. (1 Timothy 6:17-18) These are some of the many ways we choose to be content and form it into our being.
So it would seem that even before considering our choices, while sorting through the options from which to choose, and then after we have chosen, the choice of all choices is choosing contentment.