A Blessed Inattentiveness

In the Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz argues that a gratuitous amount of choice tends to diminish our happiness. When confronted with a multiplicity of options, we're reluctant to make a choice. And even when we do choose, we fear that we've somehow "missed out" (the "FoMO" hashtag amply demonstrates the pervasiveness of this mindset).  

After diagnosing this problem, Schwartz offers a number of solutions, one of which is the following: 

We would better off if we paid less attention to what others around us were doing. (p. 5)

Now more than ever, we have immediate knowledge of others' decisions and experiences. Some forms of social comparison are positive (e.g. cancer patients are often encouraged upon hearing that fellow patients are improving). But many are quite negative. Schwartz goes so far as to entitle one of his chapters, "Why Everything Suffers from Comparison." Comparisons are no longer localized. We don't just compare choices and experiences against those of people in our cities, or neighborhoods, or schools. Through telecommunications, we globalize them. Schwartz says this creates a universal and unrealistically high standard of comparison, and that it decreases our satisfaction, "even as the actual circumstances of our lives improve" (191). The result is that we're constantly reminded of what we don't have, or haven't become, or of the choices we've failed to make. 

 If Schwartz' argument is correct, it confirms a good bit of biblical wisdom. Scripture has much to say about the pitfalls of comparison (see Luke 15:11-32; 18:9-14). Comparison tends to make us prideful ("I'm better than you!") or despairing ("Everyone is better than me!"). Both attitudes are inimical to the truth of the gospel. We must, of course, be attentive to the needs of others. But attentiveness can degenerate into something unhealthy. 

I've often shared that my idol is approval. I love to be loved, feared and respected, Or, in the words of Michael Scott, "I want people to be afraid of how much they love me."  Further, I don't merely want people to tell me I'm doing well; I want to know that I'm doing beter than others around me (after all, how do you know if you're doing "well" unless you know how much "weller" you're doing than everyone else?). This causes me to focus obsessively on what others say, think and do. I worry far too much about "getting ahead" in some hypothetical rat race.

To curve this problem, I've tried to cultivate a measure of inattentiveness; to focus on what God is calling me to do, rather than on what everyone else is doing. As a practical step, I've decided to stop reading my Facebook newsfeed. I'm much less aware of what everyone else is saying and doing. I know far less about the decisions others are making. And as a result, I'm more focused, and happier with my own life.

Don't take this as a prescription. If you can peruse your newsfeed in God-honoring ways, enjoy that freedom. In my case, it fueled pride, disdain and despair. 

There's great blessing in self-forgetfulness. When we place the needs of others above our own, we experience the joy of Christlikeness. We're released from a morbid kind of introspection. But there's also blessing in a certain form of other-forgetfulness.

Enjoy the unique life God has given you. Don't worry too much about how it stacks up to the lives of everyone around you. 

 "Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them, the one who had been reclining at table close to him and had said, "Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?"  21 When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, "Lord, what about this man?"  22 Jesus said to him, "If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!" (John 21:20-22)