Fishbowl Faithfulness – Part II

Let’s examine fishbowl faithfulness from the perspective of “choices.” In a very insightful presentation on “The Paradox of Choice” (TED Talk, 2005), Barry Schwarz describes a simple scale for understanding how many options are available in any given culture. In his research, having “some” options are better than having “none,” but “more” options are never better than “some.” He argues that our land has long ago leapt out of “none,” surpassing the moderation of “some,” before landing in the excess of “more.” Schwarz finds that the more choices we have, the more we experience “paralysis.”

I remember going to video rental stores as a kid. We would arrive with the hopes of finding a great movie to rent and take home, but after the wearisome process of sifting through all the choices, a tired numbness would set in, pressing against the initial desire to watch a great movie. Now I have noticed the same effect when trying to sort through the choices on Netflix attempting to find something meaningful to watch. People who return from foreign lands talk of such “paralysis” when shopping at a grocery store once again. I remember hearing one returning missionary talk of standing in the cereal aisle in a paralyzed state, before leaving the store in tears. In Peru, we do not have buffets like we do in PA Dutch Country. Most restaurants are going to have variations of the main Peruvian dishes on their menu. Interestingly, we have yet to tire of these limited options, because they are delicious. Imagine the amount of discipline required to visit a buffet and only select a normal amount of food. With regard to these examples of feeling paralyzed in the face of so many entertainment and eating options, we often eat and watch more than we should, and certainly more than we need. In the end, we feel exploited.

Such paralysis presents itself in the face of myriads of options…daily. It confronts us in choices ranging from clothing to food to entertainment to shopping to friends to churches to college majors…and the list goes on. According to Schwarz, even if we are able to move beyond this paralysis and select a film to watch, a meal to eat; or bigger decisions like a college to attend, a job offer to accept, a spouse to marry, or a home to buy; this paralysis gives way to easy dissatisfaction. Once we enter into the choice, we face the results of our choice, however big or small. The knowledge of the options we passed over work like a magnifying glass in the back of our mind. In reflecting on our actual choice, any little disappointment appears enlarged and creates a sense of regret.

For those living in a culture with an excess amount of options, it seems to me that a chief aim becomes living life without regrets. We must focus on avoiding regrets, because they are so easy to come by. Schwarz asserts that even if we press on beyond such regrets, we continue to face elevated expectations on all fronts of our life. James K.A. Smith rehearses regularly through his writings “the images of the good life” that bombard us from all angles…daily. He especially focuses on the ways that these images have infiltrated our practices of worship, in and out of the Church.

We absorb these elevated expectations for the good life that we can achieve, even as we reposition them within a “Christian” framework. More choices present to us a life of self-actualization, a “fulfilled” life lived on our terms. Therefore, the responsibility for falling short in living “the good life” (even the Christian version of it), weighs heavily on our own shoulders. We are to blame. Schwarz argues that “self-blame” follows a lifestyle built around elevated expectations. Self-condemnation runs rampant through our homes and schools and churches. Meanwhile, the headlines of self-harm and senseless violence dominate the attention of our nation. Without realizing it, our heart’s cry, in and out of the Church, has become “safety.” Perhaps we actually long for “safety” from our own self-condemnation, which flows from the elevated expectations, the regrets, and the paralysis of trying to make the most of our life in a land that flows with many options.

It all stems from that twisted turn toward self in the first fishbowl, the garden. One trip through a Christian bookstore reflects this turn toward self in our spirituality. We strive for self-improvement through proper management of our spirituality. A quick survey of the bookstore reveals shelves neatly arranged according to the compartments of our life. The options overwhelm the sincere bookstore browser. If we determine that we wish to simply read Scripture, the options still overflow. A variety of translations in multiple stylish formats appeal to a broad spectrum of individual tastes.

Such options do not exist where we live here in the jungle city of Pucallpa, Peru. One small storefront in the center of town features Spanish translations of a few bestsellers (from the past couple decades) from Christian bookstores in the USA. Cultures in the global south, where the level of choice ranges from “none” to “some,” look to the cultures that have “more” for biblical scholarship. In light of this, a significant challenge stands before those of us “teaching” others in other cultures through our example and our words. We must expand from only translating the language to also translating the culture. Translating “languaculture” requires time, humility, and relational knowledge from within the culture. It cannot be quickly or efficiently mass produced, and it progresses slowly…like faithfulness in a fishbowl.

In his own words, Schwarz’s message in “The Paradox of Choice” applies to the individualistic and affluent western culture. I took this concept of the fishbowl from his presentation. In closing his talk, he questions whether a fish in a fishbowl is really limited, or whether it might actually be thriving. After all, jumping out of the fishbowl promises paralysis, increased dissatisfaction, and an overall disastrous condition for the “liberated” fish. Accordingly, this call for a return to fishbowl faithfulness beckons for the Church family in the United States to turn aside from its crazed pursuit of…“we are not sure what,” but we do not have time to stop and think about it. However, our neighbors among the nations wait for the people of God to discern themselves, or as Jeremiah describes it in 4:1-2, the nations wait expectantly for the blessing to be received when the people of God to repent.


Questions for reflection:

  • How have we encountered paralysis, dissatisfaction, or elevated expectations living in a land of many more options than most of the world?
  • How can we safeguard our life from a core motivation for “safety” that actually distracts us from being obedient?
  • If we find ourselves overwhelmed, weary, and busy, what is it that we are pursuing, and how can we turn back from such a detrimental pursuit?
[Watch for Part III, where we will learn about guilt, shame, and fear-based worldviews, and how they impact fishbowl faithfulness].

With gratitude,

Mark, Kristin, Caleb, Jacob, and Rachel Coté

Missionaries of Discipleship and Development based in Pucallpa, Peru (see the most recent post that we wrote)

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