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Tiffany Gee Lewis: The gospel and the power of limited life choices

Published: Wednesday, April 25 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

Too many choices can be more stressful than fewer choices. (Shutterstock.com) Too many choices can be more stressful than fewer choices. (Shutterstock.com)

I’ll never forget the first time I went to buy a vacuum as a full-fledged adult.

We had a single square of blue carpeting in our one-bedroom Miami Beach apartment that needed some attention. I drove far out of the city to a giant warehouse specializing in any gadget with a plug or a motor. The store had questionable origins, and even more questionable clientele.

I wound my way through keyboards, stereos, flat-screen televisions and hand mixers until I found the vacuum department. And right there, between the bagless and self-propelling models, I had a panic attack.

There were just so many vacuums. How would I choose just one?

The salespeople snatched me up in all my naivety and filled my ears with stories of stray pennies and paper clips that could kill the common vacuum in one fell swoop. They guided me toward the high-end models — with their floor lights and 17 height adjustments, the vacuums so advanced they would brush my teeth if I wanted.

In the end, I gave myself a little pep talk, a little reminder that a vacuum was a vacuum. The basic sucking motion was all I needed for my little blue carpet. I bought a $30 Hoover that worked like a champ for years.

In the developed world, and in the United States in particular, we have a massive array of choices: what car to drive (and what color), what brand of hair gel to use, what kind of yogurt to eat and exactly what type of IKEA shelving would suit the living room best. We tend to think that more choices will make us happier.

To a freedom-loving people, religion, then, can sometimes seem stifling. Religion puts our lives within certain parameters. In other words, it limits our choices.

Take the Word of Wisdom, for example. Because I made the simple choice long ago not to drink alcohol or caffeine, I never have to decide what type of wine to drink with dinner, or what kind of latte I want from Starbucks. Instead, I drink water.

In 2001, the author Yann Martel published the novel “Life of Pi,” the story of an Indian boy who gets stranded on a boat at sea. In the book, the character Pi is fascinated by religion and zoos. The correlation seems odd, until you realize what Martel’s getting at — namely, that both represent a place where something very animalistic can be kept within a prescribed boundary.

The difference, of course, is that we Mormons don’t look at commandments as putting us in a cage, but as giving us parameters by which to live our lives.

I could use several examples of how this plays out, but the one that keeps coming to mind is the commandment from leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to get married and start a family, without unnecessary delay. (Look no further than President Thomas S. Monson’s April 2011 talk to priesthood holders for the latest.) This counsel bucks the societal trend of putting off marriage and children. After all (as modern-day thinking goes), marrying young and starting a family limits your choices. Once you take those two life-altering steps, doors begin to close. And, in some respect, that’s true — and yet in limiting our life choices, marriage and family bring unintended benefits of clarity.

I know an awful lot of young adults who are aimless, still trying to figure out what to do with their lives. I see this trend in the Mormon missionaries who serve in our ward (and these are sister missionaries, who are already a few years older than the elders) and in the 20-something neighbors living in their parents’ basements until they can find direction. They have unlimited brands of future to choose from, and they are stuck, unable to choose at all. A little bit of college, a job here or there, but a lot of drifting in search of a purpose.

When you get married, you eliminate a lot of choices, namely whom to date and how to manage your social life. When you have children, this further limits your choices, and carries the added weight of needing to provide for a family. No more twiddling thumbs, trying to figure out what to do with your life. You just move forward.

Consider this from Barry Schwartz in the Harvard Business Review:

“There is diminishing marginal utility in having alternatives; each new option subtracts a little from the feeling of well-being, until the marginal benefits of added choice level off. What’s more, psychologists and business academics alike have largely ignored another outcome of choice: More of it requires increased time and effort and can lead to anxiety, regret, excessively high expectations and self-blame if the choices don’t work out.”

I look at that list — anxiety, regret, high expectations and self-blame — and I think of young singles today who are reportedly more depressed than any generation previously, despite having an unparalleled buffet of choices.

When I get my toddler dressed in the morning, I don’t ask him what color shirt he wants to wear. We would still be standing by the closet at noon.

Instead, I say, “Red or blue, what will it be?” It makes sense that our Father in heaven might do the same: Here are your choices — but please, pick one.

It’s an oversimplified example. Some choices we make are monumental, even eternal, and deserve careful consideration.

But life is not a vacuum. Choose, and move forward.

Tiffany Gee Lewis lives in St. Paul, Minn., and is the mother of four boys. She blogs at thetiffanywindow.wordpress.com. Her email is tiffanyelewis@gmail.com

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