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Is choice the downfall of Western Civilization? I say this only half-jokingly. The current issues of the Atlantic Monthly and Christianity Today both contain articles about what we now broadly refer to as the paradox of choice. In a widely discussed piece called “A Million First Dates,” author Dan Slater explains “how online romance is threatening monogamy.”

Slater describes the experience of a single man in his early thirties, “Jacob.” Here’s what Jacob told the author of the way his online dating experience affected his view of a long-term relationship ending.

“I’m about 95 percent certain,” he says, “that if I’d met Rachel offline, and if I’d never done online dating, I would’ve married her. At that point in my life, I would’ve overlooked everything else and done whatever it took to make things work. Did online dating change my perception of permanence? No doubt. When I sensed the breakup coming, I was okay with it. It didn’t seem like there was going to be much of a mourning period, where you stare at your wall thinking you’re destined to be alone and all that. I was eager to see what else was out there.”

It has become almost cliché to point out that the array of choices the modern world presents us with often leave us more unhappy than a more limited spectrum might have. Have I bought the right shampoo or is there one on beauty.com I’d like better? Have I bought the right house? Or will watching House Hunters make me regret it? Have I chosen the right restaurant or will I want to be eating the meal that a friend on Facebook has just posted about?

How could such a world not affect our choice of romantic partners and our view of the permanence and “replaceability” of our relationships?

Barry Cooper describes this situation in theological terms in Christianity Today. “We are worshiping an idol. A false god. One of the Baals of our culture. His name is ‘open options.’” This false god “kills our relationships because he tells us it’s better not to become too involved. . . . He kills our giving because he tells us these are uncertain financial times and you never know when you need the money.” Cooper concludes, “The god of open options is also a liar. He promises you that by keeping your options open, you can have everything and everyone. But in the end, you get nothing and no one.”

It is hard to imagine there is any going back from these choices. And maybe we will find ways to adapt to this new reality -- I read once that one reasons Trader Joe's is so successful because it offers shoppers more limited options. But in the meantime, it seems likely that our national institutions from marriage to religious life will suffer as we all consider our limitless options.

1 thought on “Is choice the downfall of Western Civilization?”

  1. Daniel says:

    I would argue that this ‘million first dates’ is more a problem men must face and overcome more so than women. Male nature is not inclined toward monogamy. So when someone we meet online does not work out, … oh, well … there are lot’s more fish in the sea (there’s even an online “dating” website titled along that very cliche). And we men can actually see them before we throw out line in the water. I will confess to having lost someone that might have been very good for me because I fell into the the trap of numerous options in online dating.

    My lesson, guys, is that once you’ve found a woman and are beginning a relationship with her stop visiting the online dating sites and end communication with anyone else. Cancel your memberships. Stop the emails from coming to your ‘Inbox’. In other words, remove the temptation and you go a long way in removing the false notion that our options are limitless.

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