Tortured by choice
In his book “Steal Like an Artist,” Austin Kleon makes the case for limitations.
“The right constraints can lead to your very best work. My favorite example? Dr. Seuss wrote “The Cat in the Hat” with only 236 different words, so his editor bet him he couldn’t write a book with only 50 different words. Dr. Seuss came back and won the bet with “Green Eggs and Ham,” one of the bestselling children’s books of all time.”
The spiritual life requires discipline. We can’t wander willy-nilly through our day with no direction or guardrails to our thoughts and actions. To live a truly spiritual life is to follow a narrow path of virtue.
Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount amount to wisdom for daily living as much as warning about eternal destiny. “Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:13-14).
Americans love choices. We hate to commit to one path. We think of wealth and education and social networks as the means to widen our options, as if that is the key to a happy life. But the German poet, Goethe, was right when he said: “The one who chooses is tortured by choice.”
Freedom is paradoxical: It comes from slavish discipline to a way of life that liberates. The writer Eugene Peterson titled a book on the spiritual life that is ironically based on the words of the Christian critic, Friederich Nietzche: “A long obedience in the same direction.”
As a pastor, I see the problem more acutely than most. Too many options of other things to do on Sunday morning besides worship, too much money to spend on things instead of given as an act of stewardship, too many ways to be served instead of serving others: These undermine the spiritual life precisely by widening rather than narrowing our scope.
The road of abundant living is found in denying the self that is driven by ego and worldly definitions of success. The true way of life Jesus calls us to is the path of loving our enemies, doing good to those who hurt us, adopting the values of humility and charity. (Other religions demand similar commitments that transform the self by not being conformed to the values of the world at large.)
Our souls expand by a deepening process of compression. Like a caterpillar pushing through the narrow opening of a chrysalis, strength is gained by the struggle to emerge as a new creature.
Singer and songwriter Jack White puts it this way: “Telling yourself you have all the time in the world, all the money in the world, all the colors in the palette, anything you want — that just kills creativity.”
Jesus’ words are often hard but always good.