Thursday, January 08, 2009

"Have It Your Way"

I think most people would agree that one of the core values and teachings of the Bible is selflessness. It goes in all directions and indeed goes deeper than we typically realize. It is a bit like Anne Lamott talks of first “getting saved.” It’s was a pretty sweet deal where Jesus moves in and cleans up the house. Then one day she looks out the window and sees a crane and a wrecking ball closing in on her house. At that point she realizes that Jesus wasn’t really there to just clean up but to tear down and start over.

Selflessness has similar proportions. It make faithfulness for the modern Christian a challenge. Consider why as you read this description of Generation Y, or the “Net Geners” from The Economist:

Net Geners value freedom and choice in everything they do. They love to customise and personalise. They scrutinise everything. They demand integrity and openness, including when deciding what to buy and where to work. They want entertainment and play in their work and education, as well as their social life. They love to collaborate. They expect everything to happen fast. And they expect constant innovation.

Life in the U.S. is structured around choice. Thus, it’s built on whatever we like, our affinity—that is, our interests and values. We can afford the luxury of selfishness and choosing according to our desires. Selfishness in many spheres of life doesn’t cause much of a stir. That’s just how the game is played.

But it’s not without its challenges. One problem a lot of us face today is simply making a decision. For example, here’s a common question: “Where do you want to go out to eat?” Even the question indicates how “optionalized” our lives are. How do you decide? We ask questions like “Well, what are you hungry for?” or “What are you in the mood for?”

We throw out some suggestions, and perhaps one really awakens a latent craving. Or, if those questions don’t narrow it down, we ask “Well, what haven’t you eaten recently?” or “Do you want Italian, Mexican, Chinese, or American fare?”

Any restaurant will in fact feed us. That’s really all we require. But it is not that simple. We have to decide which restaurant we want to accomplish that. In the end it comes down to preference, our own affinity.

As you know with choosing a restaurant, this freedom doesn’t make the decision any easier. In fact, having to choose based exclusively on desire (that is, affinity) may actually make the decision more difficult. Making this sort of decision suddenly requires that we examine ourselves in some psychological way and discern how we’re feeling. I doubt I’m exaggerating. Most people mill about precisely because it is just that complex. Instead, we respond, “I don’t know. Where do you want to go?”

Oftentimes, we’re happy enough to let others decide for us because we’re exhausted from making so many decisions like this. When you reach that point though, there are still some important decisions you shouldn’t shrug off.

You need to decide about decisions. It’s important to figure out which decisions you’re willing to have made for you and which ones are really important—important enough not to leave to someone else. Letting others make decisions about where you eat is one thing. Letting others decide how you spend your money is another. And letting others decide what you believe or value is even another.

All these sorts of decisions, though, drive us back to where we started: selfishness. They require selfishness to simply move forward. We have so many options, selfishness is the practical answer in making these choices. But if our Bibles teach that selflessness is a virtue, how do we navigate this conflict?


Chaka said...

There's some Dallas Willard in the background of this post, isn't there? Didn't he write (in Renovation of the Heart) that premodern people never had to ask themselves what they felt like doing? They knew what they had to do, either in terms of survival or duty. Meanwhile, we can't make decisions because we don't know what we feel like doing. One way to overcome that paralysis from having too many choices would be to develop a clear sense of what your duty is, I suppose.

Conner said...


I really appreciate everything you've said here. You point to so many things that are universally experienced yet experienced almost always, beneath the surface.

For instance, too often people do/don't make decisions based on the tension they feel within. This is a tension that they will never speak up about lest they are thought of as weak, indecisive, or unable to lead.

Your comment about individuals responding to a simple question "where do you want to eat?" with a deflective question; "I don't know, where do you want to eat?" is an excellent example. Great work!

Jonathan said...

Your post reminds me of what the great sage Douglas Adams wrote in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe:

"The history of every major Galactic civilization has gone through three distinct and recognizable phases--those of survival, inquiry, and sophistication, otherwise known as the How, Why, and Where phases. For instance the first phase is characterized by the question 'How can we eat?,' the second by the question 'Why do we eat?' and the third by the question 'Where shall we have lunch?'"

Adam said...

Thanks guys.

Matt - I didn't conciously have Willard's thinking in mind. Perhaps he's slipped past my conscousness by now. You're right though. He cites Tolstoy's "A Confession" and his experience with the happy Russian peasants amid his own luxurious life crisis.

Conner - I think it's sort of like when Zalinsky says to Tommy Boy, "What's that smell?" Tommy responds, "It's a taxicab air freshener, sir." And Zalinsky concludes, "Great! You've pinpointed it. Step two is washing it off."

Jonathan - An interesting quote. Can you explain why the "why" question precedes the "where" question?

Mike Moore said...

I'm thinking about being selfish for God...where does that intersect being selfish for myself and being selfless for others. I think reading through the Gospels we see Jesus being selfish and selfless with his time and decisions. I wonder how that informs our decisions about decisions...