Overwhelmed by abundance

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Too Many ChoicesIn a recent article at The New Republic, Tim Wu argues that for most Americans and Westerners, the abundance we’ve worked hard to create is now suffocating us.

Over the last century, mainly through the abundance project, we have created a world where avoiding constant decisions is nearly impossible. We have created environments that are designed to destroy our powers of self-control by creating constant choices among abundant options. The path of least resistance leads to a pile of debt, a fat body, and an enormous cable bill; strenuous daily efforts are required to avoid that fate.

What a stark contrast to the true abundance that God offers! When God provided manna to Israel, there was enough for each day, enabling the people to continue their journey and perform their duties. But our society’s abundance, enough for far more than the day, makes us slow and lethargic, neglectful of our callings. When Israel tried to horde enough manna for tomorrow, they found what always occurs when we go beyond God’s provision: “it bred worms and stank” (Exodus 16:20, KJV).

So what can we do, as children locked in an endless candy store? A common answer is that we just need to “grow-up,” to learn some self-control and act like self-restrained adults. But Wu points out, citing the work of researchers Baumeister and Tierney, that this may not be as simple as it sounds:

One possible solution is to double-down on the self-control, and train ourselves to better resist temptation and stick with the program. But…there are good reasons to suspect that relying on willpower alone will not work in an environment designed to destroy it…Humans have tested and tried self-control in the face of temptation, and it has repeatedly been found wanting. After decades of dieting and good nutrition, Americans are fatter than ever…[We] have created conditions that exhaust our willpower, more or less guaranteeing failure.

So if strengthening our resolve and trusting in self-discipline won’t see us through this avalanche of abundance, what will? Is there no balm in our Gilead of choices?

It is time, as Baumeister and Tierney would agree, to think systematically about the human environments that we are creating with technological powers only imagined by previous generations. It is time to take seriously the problems of overload and excess as collective, social challenges, even though they may be our own creations.

We don’t need more discipline over ourselves; we need more creativity over our environments. I knew one friend who would turn her monitor off at work so that internet browsing would be less of a temptation. Some people set fruits and vegetables front and center in their refrigerators so that they’re easier to see and snack on. One pastor I know changed his route home so he avoids passing fast food traps.

How can we make living well less of a decision and more of a destiny?

–Tommy Grimm

(Image by flickr user justmakeit /via Creative Commons.)

2 thoughts on “Overwhelmed by abundance

  1. We are studying poverty and justice. In one of our sessions one person stated that someone from Africa wanted to come to America to see “the fat poor people.” We have so many resources yet we do not use them well. Case in point, there are people who are struggling financially who buy tv dinners and fast food instead of buying and preparing foods that can go farther in feeding their families. Many times it’s not because they can’t cook. They say they don’t want to.

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