August 25, 2013
Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity
With choices come consequences. You can choose between alternatives. You cannot choose the consequences of your choice.
When you hear T.G.I.F., what comes to mind...? What about R.S.V.P...? A.S.A.P...? P.C...("Politically Correct"). N.W.O.... ("New World Order"). I am sure there are plenty more we could all add.
All these acronyms are shortcuts conveying an important message in shorthand form. There is one other acronym that should soon be making its way into our common vocabulary - one whose abbreviated form reflects our attempts to cut corners in our own lives - A.Y.O.R.: At Your Own Risk. What we eat and drink, where we live, who we love, what we throw away - all have literally become matters of life and death.
An enduringly popular early TV game show many, many years ago was called "Truth or Consequences." A selected contestant was first interviewed by the show, and then asked to answer a nonsense riddle. If the contestant failed to answer the riddle (few ever could) before the Buzzer sounded, he or she had to pay the consequences. This usually meant performing some silly stunt for which the contestant was amply rewarded.
Perhaps what made this game so popular was that despite its name there really were no bad "consequences." True, you might lose the game. But you couldn't end up in any worse shape than when you started. Even the losers received some sort of consolation prize. Basically, contestants simply got the chance to win big prizes - neither truth nor consequences entered into the game at all.
The days of consequence-free behavior are long gone. We are now facing an age where the choices we make are likely to have major implications for our lives. This weighty concern for consequences coincides with a similarly hefty increase in the number of choices we are being called to make on a regular basis. Life holds so many variables and options, that choosing is a given. The fact is: Our freedom of choice is no longer a choice. We now live in a choice-culture, where choice is not an option. Choice is a value and virtue in and of itself.
People expect, even need, choices. We stay away from places and people that don't give us choices. How long would any restaurant last today that only offered one food on its menu? Even McDonald's, who has always offered tempting temporary new items to their menus and learned they must offer some health food. Likewise, the age of singular big movie theaters is long over. We expect the choices offered by the Cineplex, which might pack 12 movies into one location or one that serves a gourmet dinner while you watch.
What we forget is that, even as our choices have increased, so have the responsibilities associated with them. We are free to make our own choices. We are not free to choose our own consequences. Consequences come with choices. Certain choices come with specific consequences attached. Some consequences are obvious. If you spend all day in the sun at the beach without sunscreen on, the consequences are visible to all - sunburn. However, choosing to expose yourself to the sun every day may result in something less noticeable but far more dangerous - skin cancer.
The delayed consequences of some choices are coming home to roost most tragically for those who unknowingly choose to have sex with a disease-infected partner. But that is only one in a series of deadly consequences our self-centered, choice-addicted, post-modern lifestyles have reaped. Exterior consequences are the most obvious: Our choice to drive a car instead of using some form of mass transit results in layers of smog and dependence on huge supplies of foreign oil. Our choice of convenience over conservation has depleted our raw materials and overflowed our landfills and incinerators. Rainforests and animals are going extinct due to our choices.
The shock waves from this choice explosion have rippled deep into our individual souls as well as across our society. Steven Waldman has drawn up a kind of checklist of the personal consequences suffered by people by the choice conflagration.
First Waldman claims that "choice erodes commitment." He points out that the pressure to upgrade, to always be the most current "...can help explain everything from the rise of the pathological channel switcher who can never watch a TV show straight through all the way to staggering divorce rates and employer-employee disloyalty".
I believe it. I see and hear every day through people I encounter.
Ironically the demand for greater freedom of choice has resulted in less time to make all those choices. Thus less free time goes with all these new so-called freedoms. It is not just hazy reminiscing that makes us believe we used to have more unscheduled moments in our lives. Sociology professor John P. Robinson of the University of Maryland studied the "time diaries" (daily appointment books like Day-Timers) of busy people for three decades. His findings not only confirm our own suspicions that we are busier than we used to be, but he suggests just what it is that is eating up all our days and nights. "Much of our free time," Robinson concludes, "is absorbed by the process of deciding what to do with it". Consider how many traffic jams you have sat in on your way to the local mall's Cineplex so that you could stand in line to get into that great new movie. (Fortunately, I have not had that much problem with traffic jams going to Disney, but it crosses my mind each time!)
Given more and more choices, we become less and less concerned with making good decisions. To make a truly informed decision would take so much time and effort researching all the options that we just give up. Waldman relates that his own observations among his friends reveals "...several friends [who] confessed that the selection of car models - 591 and rising - has become so dizzying that they tossed aside Consumer Reports and relied entirely on the recommendation of a friend".
An addition to increased choice is political alienation. This suggests that alienation comes from our sense of social fragmentation. We have grown used to being identified as so many sub-groups, consumer markets, minority opinions and economic divisions, that we can no longer envision ourselves as part of a whole - not a whole city, county, state or nation - nor a whole person or a whole human race. We choose our own identity but consequently lose our sense of unity.
In essence then, choice erodes the self. Some people suffer from "multi-phrenic" - a condition where the self "frantically flails about trying to take advantage of the sea of choices". We have all had our bouts with multi-phrenic. Its consequences are that instead of feeling satisfied and choice-satiated, we are filled with self-doubt and gnawing anxiety.
The point about choice overload as we experience it is that we are obsessed with making the "right choices" about small potatoes and small, unimportant things while shutting down on the important decisions and big issues of life. Are you spending all your energy on decisions about what color carpet will go in the education wing, or who should chair the new committee on handicap accessibility, while ignoring the biggest commitment in your life, your commitment to Christ? The author of Hebrews cautioned his readers in the sternest tones about the finality of the consequences of some choices. His use of Esau spoke clearly about his belief in no second repentance. They had the freedom to choose to abandon their commitments to Christ, but they must realize the attendant cost.
Today’s Gospel reminds us that we live the life of faith by participation. We need to accept God’s grace to live a life of faith. Our free choice and willing consent is a crucial step in conversion to Jesus Christ.
One of the gifts Christ's presence in our lives gives us today is not freedom of choice but a freedom from choice under certain circumstances. A commitment to Christ gives us guidelines which, though broad, allow certain options to fall along the wayside. It doesn't tell us whether to vote Democrat or Republican, or what car we should purchase or where we should live. But our commitment to Christ is a commitment to life, to love and to hope. Our choices, therefore, should testify to Christ's presence in our lives by engendering respect, integrity and justice as their "consequences."
Jesus Christ calls us to enter into a loving relationship with God, not just to be aware of God’s existence. Jesus invites us to participate in the life of faith, by saying “yes” to this relationship every day through our words and deeds.
That choice for Jesus Christ will enable you to better facilitate the myriad of choices before you, and thus leave behind many of those choices that would be of more harm than help. We are called to place our faith in God and not the computer screen of life that has 100 commercials going at once vying for your “choice” to be made. Enter through the narrow gate where the choices are few, but more appropriate to our needs instead of our wants.
Make that choice for Christ today by making the choice to spend more time with Him in prayer, and He will strengthen you to make better choices each day.
God Love You +
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.