Choose Change/Change Choice

The following is a digest of “The Tyranny of Choice” in Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal and Delight in Our Busy Lives by Wayne Muller. I have chosen to summarize Muller’s text in light of this week’s impending “fall break.” My prayer is that some portion of it is a “break,” if not from work at least from routine, for all of us.

Suppose that a warrior forgot that he was already wearing his pearl on his forehead, and sought for it somewhere else; he might search through the whole world without finding it. But if someone simply pointed it out to him, the warrior would immediately realize that the pearl had been there all the time.
–Huang Po

Sometimes it is necessary to stop one thing before another thing can begin. The traditional thirty-nine prohibitions against working on the Jewish Sabbath gave birth to what one scholar calls “the most precious, inestimable pearl” of Sabbath tranquility. Similarly, most of the Ten Commandments begin with “Thou shalt not.” These prohibitions against stealing, lying, murdering, and the like, if practiced with a fullness of heart, set us free to turn our energies to other things more precious—to honesty, fidelity, generosity, and love.

But progress promises us the endless expansion of choice; we chafe at any restriction to our capacity to generate options, and we revolt against any concept of prohibition. We equate choice with freedom, but they are not the same. If we exercise our choice to covet or to steal or to live without rest, we will soon feel trapped and unhappy. We equate choice with nourishment, but a dozen different soft drinks, potato chips, and candy bars provide no vitamin C, iron, protein, beta carotene—or any significant nutrition at all. Regardless of how many choices we pile one upon the other, it is still a big, fat, empty meal.

Freedom of choice can be as painful as it is precious. We want to be able to choose whatever career, spouse, or neighborhood we wish, but how do we decide, what should we look for, should we go to school now or later, have children now or later, stay home with the children and rick getting passed over by more aggressive colleagues, or push a career now and hope that day care is a nurturing option? How do we decide which partner we love, whether to change our neighborhood or political party, or start exploring new spiritual traditions?

Freedom of choice can suffocate us; we drown in a sea of options. With so much else we could have chosen, how do we ever know we have done the right thing?

The Sabbath is a patch of ground secured by a tiny fence, when we withdraw from the endless choices afforded us and listen, uncover what is ultimately important, remember what is quietly sacred. Sabbath restrictions on work and activity actually create a space of great freedom; without these self-imposed restrictions, we may never be truly free.

(Over the coming week) choose one pleasurable activity that is easily done and takes little time. Leaf through a magazine and tear out a picture that you find appealing; put it somewhere you will see it, and notice how you respond to it throughout the day. Write a short poem about nothing of any importance. Put a new flower in a cup by your bed. Take a walk around the block. Sing a song you know from beginning to end. Do something simple and playful like this every day. Take a crayon and make some simple drawing of your bedroom. Let the power of simple act of creativity stop you, slow your pace, interrupt your speed. Notice how willing you are to be stopped. Notice how it feels when you are.

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