When information leads to inaction

I am a music junkie, with more than 1,000 CDs and countless downloaded music files. There’s a music store in Dallas called Bill’s Records that had the deepest music catalog of any music store I had ever seen. If there was a rare import or limited edition release, I knew Bill’s would have it.

Sometimes, though, I just wanted to browse. The problem was that, unless I had a specific thing in mind that I was looking for, I almost never bought anything there. There was just so much that I hardly knew where to start.

A scientific study considered how we humans make choices. Two tables were set up in a grocery store, one with six choices of jellies, and another with more than 20. Though when asked, people claim to want more options, the study results were quite different; the table with only six samples sold 10 times more than the table with a much larger selection.

Author A.J. Jacobs refers to this phenomenon in his book, “A Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible.” In this particular section, he is wrestling with why the Good Book has so many rules.

“The Bible takes away a lot of those jam jars,” says Jacobs, referring to the study. “There’s something relieving and paradoxically liberating about surrendering yourself to a minimal-choice lifestyle, especially as our choices multiply like cable channels.”

There’s an acronym that’s become indicative of a growing trend within the online community called “wilfing.” The term “wilf” stands for “what was I looking for?” This refers to the tendency to begin looking for a certain bit of information online, only to be consumed by an infinite thread of links to other interesting tidbits. After a while, you’re so far from where you began that it’s hard to remember why you got online in the first place.

In a British study done last year, data suggested that young professionals squander as much as two full workdays a month wilfing. What’s worse: those wilfers probably can’t tell you what they spent their time doing.

It’s enough to raise the question: Although we’re surrounded by more choices and more information than ever before, are we entering into the informational equivalent of 40 years in the desert? It calls to mind the story of the Israelites, after being led to freedom by Moses, who came to realize that their thirst soon took precedent over their previous longing for freedom.

Perhaps our voracious appetite for personal choice, individual expression and freedom comes at a hidden cost. Maybe, although what we think we want are options, what we really need is freedom tempered with structure, and latitude balanced with some limitations, even if our initial reaction is resistance.

As a member of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), my gut reaction is to reject anything that smacks of dogma, or that attempts to proscribe in any way my relationship with the divine. However, if we consider our religious institutions less like high school principals and more like experienced guides, maybe there is some potential benefit in being nurtured into more of a “minimal-choice lifestyle.”

I’m the first to admit that the things I think I want don’t always serve me well in the end. I like to think I can address God more or less on my own terms, but where to begin? At its best, church offers movable, permeable boundaries that allow us room to navigate, while not feeling lost. At its worst, these boundaries become fixed, rigid doctrines that our institutions of faith wield as weapons.

Personally, I don’t want any church telling me which kind of jelly to eat, but I’m also not sure I can handle 20 choices, all at once. Let’s split the difference and start with a handful of options, with the understanding that, just because these are the ones currently on the table, there’s a world full of options we can continue to explore together.

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