Decision Fatigue

Decision-making is exhausting. That’s what New York Times columnist John Tierney explains in his recent and fascinating article entitled, “Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue?” Whether it’s in the supermarket, on the Internet, or in our home or workplace, we are inundated with more choices than we can possibly process, aren’t we? We face hundreds of decisions each day, from mundane to metaphysical, and this constant bombardment of choices has some surprising individual and cultural effects. Tierney writes:

The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?) The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid any choice.[1]

In addition to explaining my sometimes impulsive and indecisive shopping habits, I find this article makes sense on a much deeper level. Consider the deep questions we face when choosing a religious view, for example: Which God or religion should I follow? Which church, temple, mosque, synagogue, or humanist organization should I attend? Or maybe I should read some books first. But which ones? There are so many, and they’re all written by intelligent people, many with PhDs who know more about their subject than I ever could. Plus, none of them worship the same thing in the same way, and everyone seems to disagree on every conceivable religious or philosophical topic out there. How can I figure all of this stuff out with any degree of certainty?

When decision fatigue plagues us with tough kinds of religious questions, many of us tend either to bounce from one practice to another, thus experimenting with the latest spiritual trend, or we conclude that it’s impossible to know anything definitively, so why not reserve judgment until the day when it all makes sense? This type of thinking is especially prevalent in the United States today, where the fastest growing segment of the population claims to be religiously unaffiliated yet varies widely in their religious beliefs and practices. [2] [3]

Still, we know that humans are innately religious, and that our desire to worship something—whether it is a tribal god, a political leader, or a football team—appears to be hardwired into our genetic makeup from the very beginning.[4] Unfortunately, this aspect of our human nature doesn’t make the decision of who or what to worship any easier. Regardless of what we may believe about God or religion, not taking our beliefs and practices seriously could have drastic consequences in this life or another one.

So how do we counter decision fatigue of the religious sort? Rather than succumbing to the extremes of impulsive religious experimentalism or hyper-cautious agnosticism, we could face our religious decision fatigue with steadfastness and courage. We could spend time with people who live out what they preach in their faith communities, read their sacred texts and commentaries, and attempt to maintain an open mind and a keen eye during the process.[5] This may sound like a lot of time and effort, and it very well could be!

But fortunately some of the best decisions we make in life begin with a simple, playful curiosity to go and see someone or something that’s intriguing. The disciples in the New Testament certainly had such an occasion when they met Jesus of Nazareth for the first time: “They said to him, Rabbi’ (which is to say, when translated, Teacher), ‘where are You staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where He was staying….”[5] Indeed, if a simple decision like going to see where someone is spending the night can be the start of something momentous, (as it was for the disciples), we should be reassured that, despite our experience with decision fatigue, the very same possibility exists for us.

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