The Tyranny of Choice

As a middle-class member of our first-world American society, I make an incredibly large number of decisions each and every day. From clothes, food, entertainment, education, work, and much more, my life is filled with choices. I wake up in the morning and decide what to eat: fruit, yogurt, cereal, oatmeal or toast? I look in my closet and determine what to wear based on the weather or my mood or my schedule for the day. I had to decide what college to attend, what subject to major in, what career to pursue. On the weekends, there are endless options of shows, movies and local activities I could participate in for fun. The list of choices goes on.

For those of us who have lived in middle-class America our entire lives, having a number of choices and the freedom to make our own decisions is normal. We would feel deprived if we had less choices; many of us actually feel entitled to choice. But what if so many choices are actually ruling our lives? What if having to make so many decisions is actually eating away at our time and our sanity? Is it possible that we could actually accomplish more with less choices?

The idea that choice could literally be playing a tyrannical role in my life and in the world at large first began to form in my mind when I arrived home from volunteering at a ministry in Guatemala for six weeks. I hid away in my room for most of the week, mourning the loss of the friends and the work I had come to dearly love, until my family finally decided for me that I needed to get out of the house. My mom coordinated an informal get-together and sent me to the grocery store for snacks. Although I drove and entered Wal-Mart with no difficulty, I stood for nearly fifteen minutes in the snack aisle completely overwhelmed. As the faces of malnourished children filled my mind and tears began to well, I called my mom and quietly asked her to tell me specifically what kind of snack and what brand and what flavor did she want me to buy. The choices – so many choices – seemed unfair and unjust in the face of so much hunger in the world. I finally understood why some missionaries have panic attacks in grocery stores when they return home from their time overseas.

The tyranny of choice has continued to be a theme in my life and returned once again when I attended a Justice Summit this semester. Put on by the student organization SVJI (Shenandoah Valley Justice Initiative), an organization dedicated to bringing awareness and aiding in the prevention of human trafficking, this weekend conference both opened my eyes to the devastating reality of modern day slavery as well as the sobering reality of my own privilege. A Q&A session was held at the end of the weekend, and someone asked about how we can practically combat excess in our lives, especially in regards to food. As all of our lives are interrelated, our day to day actions promote justice just as much as big campaigns and interventions. The main speaker said that he avoids excess by simply not allowing choice to reign in his home. He quoted the eye-opening statistic that for every four bags of groceries the average American brings home from the grocery store, one bag goes unused. In essence, Americans waste a quarter of the food we buy. The speaker therefore suggested we eat as much of the food in our pantry as possible before we buy more. We often think we need our favorite foods and staples available – but that mentality is a key example of how the belief that we are entitled to choice can rule the way we spend our money, combat justice, and live our lives.

After that Q&A session, I began to really think about the role of choice in my life. Ask anyone who knows me well and they will tell you that I hate making decisions. Both large and small, decisions are not my friends. I’ve gotten better at it over the years, but decision making is still definitely not my cup of tea. And honestly, the greater the number of choices involved in the decision, the higher my anxiety. I feel paralyzed in the presence of too many choices. Perhaps that feeling of paralysis is a form of tyranny that choice has in my life.

Even more detrimental than the tyranny of choice in my closet, my pantry, or even my education and career is the harmful effect choice can play in our activism against injustice. As our global awareness continues to expand along with our knowledge of modern day injustices, the number of non-profit organizations aiding and preventing injustices also continues to grow. While this in and of itself is not a bad thing (in fact, it’s wonderful that more and more people are involved in generating positive change), we must be on guard that the number of ways we can become involved does not paralyze us into a state of doing nothing. The number of choices often overcomplicates the act of advocacy and masks the true purpose of justice. Fighting against injustice boils down to valuing human life – at the end of the day, underneath all of the red tape and all of the organizations and all of the statistics, our heart and focus should be on helping and loving people who are in need. It’s not any more complicated than that. So if you feel a burden on your heart to make a difference, to use your time to help others and fight injustice, but you feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of ways you could get involved, just stop for one person today. Stop for the one. Open your eyes to see the people around you and don’t discount the small ways you can make a difference in someone’s life – today. Write a kind note and stick it on your coworker’s desk. Buy flowers and give it to your neighbor you never talk with. Buy a warm meal for the homeless man you pass every day on your way to work. This is how you begin. One step at a time – toward the people around you. Then next week or next month, take one step more. Choose just one organization to give of your time and/or resources. This is how we can change the world. All these small acts of love might just add up into one great force of positive change. We must not allow choice to ever reign over love.

~Sarah Foster


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