Choosing an Abundant Life
by Jeremy Henzell-Thomas
In his book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. How the Culture of Abundance Robs us of Satisfaction, Barry Schwartz relates how he once asked for a pair of jeans in a well-known store. The salesperson replied: “Do you want them slim fit, easy fit, baggy or extra baggy?” There were more options: “Do you want them stonewashed, acid-washed, or distressed?” And still more: “Do you want them button-fly or zipper-fly? Do you want them faded or regular?” Stunned by this welter of choices, he spluttered : “I just want regular jeans. You know, the kind that used to be the only kind.”
The same book reproduces a cartoon from The New Yorker headlined A WORLD OF UNLIMITED CHOICE which depicts a middle-aged house-hunting couple entering a very spacious, bare room in a house they are viewing. The man stands listlessly in the doorway with a blank expression on his face while his wife enthuses: “Oh, Richard, the possibilities!”
When I was a young man I spent three years teaching English in a rural school in Zambia. It was a difficult time for the Zambian economy, and there were widespread shortages of basic commodities. When I eventually returned to England, I was stunned by the choice available in supermarkets, and yet I did not find it liberating. I used to stand in the aisle devoted to innumerable brands of biscuits, completely stumped as to which brands to buy. To this day, I find the clutter of choice oppressive. Now that I live in France, it is the vast plenitude of different brands of yoghurt that leave me lurching from one shelf to another vainly trying to comprehend what is special or distinctive about each one. Is the sheer amount of cognitive effort expended in reaching a decision really worth it?
And yet, are we not continually being assured by the government and the supermarkets that it is the endless expansion or “ratcheting up” of “choice” that we “consumers” want and deserve? And aren’t our supermarkets the best because they “deliver” so much choice?
We need to rigorously question this assumption that the exponential proliferation of products and services which are foisted upon us in the name of “choice” is beneficial. Muhammad Asad dedicates his Message of the Qur’an, to “people who think”, because the Qur’an is insistent that we should use our reason (‘aql), insight (albab, basirah) and conscious understanding (rushd) to distinguish what is true from what is false. Applying the criterion (furqan) within these God-given faculties enables us see through the way we are conditioned, homogenised and ultimately enslaved by repeated but inherently deceptive messages, and we may well agree with Schwarz’s conclusion that the promiscuous amount of choice can render us helpless and dissatisfied.
Why is that? How can we argue against the seductive view that the abundant display of products forever “rolling out” is a sign of our “creativity” and “dynamism”? Even from a metaphysical point of view, couldn’t we argue that all this abundance simply reflects the inexhaustible plenitude of God’s bounty, the manifestation of His divine generosity to his creatures?
Quite simply, it is because the endless proliferation of material products and their perpetually unfolding variants can never satisfy the inward spiritual hunger we are all imprinted with as human beings. Unconscious of the spiritual source of that hunger, we can only pile up or consume more and more in the vain hope that our increasingly voracious appetite and craving for novel taste experiences can eventually be assuaged. There is only the prospect of escalating demand and an exhausting and unrealisable search for perfection in what is always “out there” and never discovered within. Mesmerized by a dazzling array of baubles, we can only be drawn ever further into an intolerable surfeit of “choice” which blinds us to our inward treasures.
This is the inevitable penalty of externalising or projecting the inner spark of divine perfection within the core of our essential nature onto the things of the world. It is the unslakeable thirst of Tantalus in the infernal regions of Greek mythology: standing in a pool, his chin level with the water, parched with thirst yet never able to quench it; or the toil of Ixion, fastened to a ceaselessly revolving wheel, or Sisyphus, condemned to roll a huge rock up to a hilltop, only for it to hurtle headlong down to the plain again just before it reached the summit. And so he toiled perpetually, never reaching his goal.
In Surah At-Takathur, the Qur’an admonishes us for this rampant materialism:
You are obsessed by greed for more and more until you go down to your graves. (102:1-2).
With characteristic contemporary relevance, Muhammad Asad comments as follows:
“The term takathur denotes man’s obsessive striving for more and more comforts, more material goods, greater power over his fellow-men or over nature, and unceasing technological progress. A passionate pursuit of such endeavours, to the exclusion of everything else, bars man from all spiritual insight and, hence, from the acceptance of any restrictions and inhibitions based on purely moral values – with the result that not only individuals but whole societies gradually lose all inner stability and, thus, all chance of happiness.”
How prophetic these words are! We can see many signs of the loss of that inner stability and the chance of happiness in the society around us. But the burning question for us has to be this: how do we, as Muslims, make the case for the recovery of that inner stability and the chance of happiness not only for ourselves but for everyone in our society? How can we act as a beacon to inspire others to find inner meaning and enrichment beyond the demoralising and dispiriting treadmill of endless choices which can never satisfy but can only ever tantalise us?
Part of the answer lies in the meaning of “choice” in our own spiritual tradition.
The word ikhtiyar is invariably translated as “choice”, but it is related to the word khayr, ‘good’, indicating that the capacity for choice divinely embedded in human character is meant to be the choice of what is good. To act in accordance with what our real and true nature demands, to fulfil the trust (amanah) placed on us, is true freedom. To choose what is good is freedom, because it is based on a conscious understanding of the difference between what is true and what is false.
Thus, to have access to an abundance of products is not in itself necessarily detrimental to us, but to believe that this expanded choice will give us ultimate satisfaction is a profound delusion. If we believe this, we condemn ourselves to slavery.
Qur’an 2:61 describes how, wandering in the desert of Sinai after fleeing from Egypt, many of the followers of Moses had complained that they could not endure only one kind of food (the sustenance provided by God) and, looking back with longing to the comparative security of their life in Egypt, had asked Moses to pray to God that He bring forth for them the abundance of the earth – its herbs, cucumbers, garlic, lentils, and onions. “Would you take a lesser thing in exchange for what is so much better?” Moses replies, or, in other words, “Would you exchange your freedom for the paltry comforts which you enjoyed in your Egyptian captivity?”
Let me end with a beautiful hadith related by Mu’awiya.
Upon coming out of the mosque, the prophet saw a circle of men. He asked them why they had gathered. They said: “We have gathered to remember God, and to praise him for having guided us to Islam, and for having bestowed upon us His grace.” The Prophet then said: “I ask you not out of accusation, but because Gabriel came to me and told me that God is taking pride in you before the angels.”
A dear friend remarked to me that he saw this as the final riposte of God to the angels when they asked Him why He was placing on earth people who ‘make mischief and shed blood’, while they, the angels, hymn His praises. In the Qur’an God simply says: “I know what you know not” (2:30). But in this hadith, God is going further: here are corruptible people doing out of their own free will what you angels have no choice but to do! Did I not tell you that I know what you know not: that the greatest miracle is people on earth acting as if they were angels already in paradise…?”
At every moment we are presented with the gift of that free choice, a choice which beckons us to a truly abundant life.