Recently, while traveling for business, I was tired after a long day and so began scrolling through the channels on the hotel television. Because there was next to nothing worth watching on the hundreds of channels available, I finally settled on a mildly interesting house hunting show.
If you haven’t seen this kind of show, the basic premise is that couples from different walks of life set out looking for the perfect home with a limited budget (which is hardly ever respected) and must choose between several options, each with its own drawbacks and benefits.
Inevitably, the protagonists end up gleefully choosing the home that grossly exceeds their budget because it offers the least number of compromises. I always wonder how giddy they are after a few mortgage payments.
My point here is not to discuss the merits of house hunting TV shows. But it did occur to me that house hunting is very much a metaphor for the modern lifestyle that sees nearly everything in terms of a choice between competing options.
The Religion of Choice
In nearly every aspect of modern existence, we have a smorgasbord, a veritably unlimited menu, of options from which to choose—everything from what we wear, to what we eat, to where we live, to where and how and what we worship.
We have more options to choose from than any other people group at any other time in the history of humanity. And this fact defines our way of life. Consciously or unconsciously, we are little more than consumers in an vast mall of choices. Shopping is the religion of modernity.
At first glance, this nearly unlimited choice should guarantee our happiness. It should be a tremendous boon. After all, if at any point we are ever unhappy, we need simply reexamine the menu of choices and choose the option that will meet our needs.
This is the promise of consumerism. This is the fundamental dogma of the religion of autonomy and self-actualization. The better option, the right option for you, is just around the corner. It is just another choice away.
The Paradox of Choice
The truth is quite the opposite in reality. For the paradox of choice is that it always leaves us unhappy. The more choices we have, the more dissatisfied we become. And so if we are unhappy, it must be our own fault. We must simply have chosen the wrong option and need only return again to the metaphorical marketplace and find the one that’s right for us.
So we sell the house that has a kitchen that is too small or a yard that is too cramped. We switch jobs if we don’t like our boss or find the work monotonous. And taken even further, we divorce the wife who no longer measures up (I recently saw a sign advertising cheap divorce, a product like anything else). There is always a better option, we are told. We just have to find it.
Consumerism then becomes an itch that must be scratched. It is a canker that is never soothed. It steals any real happiness from us so it can be sold back to us—at a profit, of course.
Commitment and Love
But there is a deeper problem with the culture of choice: It creates a climate that makes it nearly impossible for authentic love to grow. Because we never commit to anything, we never learn to love anything.
For love always involves sacrifice. It will always hurt and cost us in one way or another. And by love, I do not mean spousal love necessarily, though this is of course involved. I mean love for a vocation, for a family, for a place, for a community, or even for a home.
As consumers catechized by our culture to believe unhappiness can be solved by shopping, we are always running away from discomfort in search of the mythical better choice. We are constantly fleeing the pain that comes with investing ourselves in places or things. And so we never learn to love and never experience the joy and lasting fruit that commitment brings. We remain instead rootless, restless, displaced, and dissatisfied.
A Call to Stability
What to do? The only solution to the consumeristic trap is to consciously choose limitation. The only way out is to reject the menu of choices and choose stability. It is the only way to learn virtue. It is the only way to learn to love.
That is not to deny that God sometimes calls us to move or to change jobs or to change our circumstances in one way or another. It is indeed necessary at times, and sometimes more frequently than we wish. But I firmly believe that, more often than not, the opposite is true. I believe that God more frequently asks us to commit and to invest ourselves in people and in a place and to put down roots. But we are too restless and agitated to listen.
So Catholic men, I challenge you to commit. I challenge you to find a woman and love her till the day you die. To find a place to call home and if at all possible love it and raise your children in it and fill it with the warmth of memories. To choose a vocation and grow in it until you are a craftsman who glorifies God with his labor. To invest in the place to which God has called you, even at cost to yourself. To choose the demands of love and experience the joy that it brings.