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Decisions Decisions, Part 2

Sometimes it's OK to simply make the best decision you can and trust God to let you know if you've gone astray.

In Part 1, I discussed the difficulties of making potentially life-altering decisions — like how to know whether to take a new job. Just because it’s a yes-or-no decision doesn’t make the task an easy one. In such cases, I argued that instead of waiting in vain for God to write “TAKE THE JOB” in the clouds, it’s better to simply pray, make the best decision you can and trust God to let you know you know if you’ve gone astray.

But what about when the situation is more complex, when the number of alternatives seems overwhelming? What about when it’s time to settle on your first investment, a new car or the person you’ll commit to for life? How are you supposed to make such an important selection when a “better” choice could be right around the corner?

If you’re the type of person who has trouble deciding on a wireless plan, then you’re in for a rough ride ahead. As any American can tell you, from TV channels to Web sites, we are awash in a sea of options. Our stores offer hundreds of choices; our shopping malls offer hundreds of stores. Think about the last time you went shopping. How many shoes — or dresses or ties — did you look at before finally reaching a decision? And even if you weren’t 100 percent sure about a purchase, you usually had the option of returning it to the store for a complete refund. No risk, no regrets.

In his book The Paradox of Choice, psychology professor Barry Schwartz argues that having choices is good, but only up to a point. Most Americans, he writes, are actually suffering from an overabundance of options:

When people have no choice, life is almost unbearable. As the number of available choices increases … the autonomy, control and liberation this variety brings are powerful and positive. But as the number of choices keeps growing, negative aspects of having a multitude of options begin to appear. As the number of choices grows further, the negatives escalate until we become overloaded. At this point, choice no longer liberates, but debilitates. It might even be said to tyrannize.

As one who has been overwhelmed by the sheer breadth of some restaurant offerings, I can certainly understand Schwartz’s thesis. Indeed, there is a restaurant chain in my part of the country where the menu resembles a small phonebook. And as anyone who’s ever gone out to eat with me will tell you, I function much better with a limited menu. Please, give me fewer choices — that way I won’t always wonder about the dish I might have ordered but didn’t. And heaven forbid a tastier-looking entree arrives at a neighboring table while mine is already underway in the kitchen.

Sometimes I wonder how I ever settled on a college, or a major, or the new brand of sandwich bread I was forced to choose when my local supermarket stopped carrying the variety I had eaten for years. But I did, and along the way, I’ve become convinced that God does not want us paralyzed with fear and inaction as we seek His perfect will for every situation. While there indeed may be an ideal sandwich bread, I don’t think I need to fast and pray for weeks to discern what it is. It’s just not that important. And when I do face a decision with lasting consequences, I now have the ability to choose without fear of making a colossal blunder.

But what about the decision, the one that has spawned thousands of self-help books and even more broken hearts? Like Schwartz, author Jillian Straus contends that our “multiple choice culture” is just one more factor keeping Gen-Xers from investing in long-term relationships. In her book Unhooked Generation: The Truth About Why We’re Still Single, Straus writes that our consumer-oriented society has created in many people “a sense that countless options exist, options that make it difficult to commit to one person.”

No longer hoping to meet someone by chance at church or a dinner party, the creation of an online community suggests that our true soul mate might be just one more click away. These communities of singles in urban areas, artificially created by the Internet, have resulted in a vast dating marketplace. In a marketplace with so many choices, the notion of finding your soul mate can seem daunting at best. Yet the promise always exists that if one relationship doesn’t work out or gets old, you can log on for something better. With a glut of choices, it is easy to see why so many men and women remain single, despite their search for their “one and only.”

I’m well aware that many people are happily married to someone they met online, but how many singles have put off marriage, or even a serious relationship, for fear of accepting anything less than the perfect partner? Those singles are what Schwartz calls “maximizers” — people who seek and accept only the best. And while it certainly sounds admirable, maximizing in search of a spouse means never, ever settling — after all, why marry someone who is perfectly acceptable today when the “love of a lifetime” may be waiting for you tomorrow? A maximizer is the ultimate bargain hunter, a shopper who can’t make the best choice until he or she examines all the choices.

The alternative, Schwartz writes, is to be what he calls a “satisficer” — one who settles for something that is “good enough,” not worrying about what might have been. That’s not to say that satisficers don’t have criteria and standards; they do. But when a satisficer locates the item (or individual) that meets those standards, the search is over. No more shopping for a better option:

To a maximizer, satisficers appear to be willing to settle for mediocrity, but that is not the case. A satisficer may be just as discriminating as a maximizer. The difference … is that the satisficer is content with merely excellent as opposed to the absolute best.

Schwartz offers plenty of advice for today’s overwhelmed choosers, such as reducing deliberations about unimportant decisions; controlling unrealistic expectations; spending less time regretting past decisions; and, unless you’re truly dissatisfied, sticking with choices that have satisfied in the past. The common thread to all his suggestions is “satisfice more and maximize less.”

While these are all worthwhile ideas, the best suggestions are the ones Schwartz and Straus don’t mention: Pray. Search the Scriptures. Seek the advice of mature Christians. Trust God. As I explained in Part 1, I am convinced that He is more than able to let us know when we’re making a wrong choice, and do so before it’s too late. So instead of “satisfice more and maximize less,” why not adopt a new mantra: “trust God more and fear commitment less”? Why not treat a serious relationship as if it could be “the one,” trusting that God will make it clear if it’s a mistake?

The alternative is to view romance like an apartment lease — the commitment only lasts 6-12 months, and then you’re free to move out and move on. Sure, you’ll never have to bear the responsibility of a mortgage, but you’ll also spend the rest of your life paying rent with nothing to show for it.

As for me, I knew I wanted to stop renting about two months after I started dating the woman who would become my wife. Yet even though we were obviously in love, we wanted to make sure we were making the right decision. We prayed about our relationship, both by ourselves and together. We sought the opinions of our pastor and mutual friends. And we trusted God.

We also refused to be maximizers. No more shopping for better options. After all, the only way to know if our relationship would last a lifetime was to treat it like it could.

We’ve been together ever since.

Copyright 2006 Thomas Jeffries. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Thomas Jeffries

Thomas Jeffries is a journalist, editor and recreational basketball player. He was born on the east coast, grew up in the Midwest and now resides with his wife and kids in Colorado. Thomas has written for several magazines, newspapers and websites, but his greatest passion as a writer is long-form narrative nonfiction. His journalistic adventures have taken him from Washington, D.C., to inner-city Chicago to Florida’s death row. In his spare time, Thomas does a lot of mundane things — none of them worth describing in detail.

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