This may sound counterintuitive, but I believe some of the freest thinking happens within constraints. And I am not the only one who thinks this way. A few years ago, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and Food Network star Ina Garten appeared at an event hosted by Dominican University in San Rafael. The two women shared insights on how they made choices in their respective industries, and both agreed that with so many options available, it was freeing to apply well-chosen constraints to their decision-making. “Sometimes it’s easier to ask, ‘What interesting application can we build on a screen that is this size? What interesting application can we build if we only take eight megabytes of memory?’” Mayer said. Ina Garten agreed. “We keep thinking of making the box we’re working in bigger and bigger,” Garten said. “Sometimes it’s good to make it smaller.”
I find this general wisdom of ‘making the box smaller’ helpful when deciding what I should do in almost any circumstance. Given that most situations we inhabit trigger us to see multiple possibilities for how we might proceed, thinking inside a box can actually be freeing when that box is made of our fundamental principles for how to act. Being men and women of faith who identify the Triune God as the source of our existence and hope of eternal happiness, we indeed have fundamental principles by which we aim to live our lives. Since the early Church, believers in Jesus have utilized methods of narrowing down the fundamental principles that enable Christians to act well. One of the most common approaches has been to use the Seven Deadly Vices of lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride and the corresponding Seven Heavenly Virtues of chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility as behavior filters. But what are vices and virtues? Through vice we become dominated by desire for worldly pleasure and fear of worldly discomfort, while virtues are habits that make it easier for us to enjoy things in the world without being mastered by them. The more self-mastery we possess, the freer we are to develop into the people God made us to be. And this is what enables us to be happiest. So, the next time you need to make a significant decision, try filtering it through consideration of the Seven Deadly Vices and Seven Heavenly Virtues. For example, suppose I am a lay person who is considering a major luxury purchase. I may know that buying a luxury item is not a sin in and of itself, but that does not answer the question of whether or not it would be a good choice for me in this instance. Regarding the vice of greed, perhaps I could take a casual inventory of my current possessions and review how habitual my splurging has been. If I do buy the new item, how much time will pass before its newness wears off and I am itching for something else? Also, how do I feel about the level of my charitable giving in comparison to what I spend on luxuries? Beyond charity and greed, other vices and virtues are relevant to luxury shopping. Consider the vice of wrath. Could this purchase’s impact on my budget intensify my stress and cause me to be more susceptible to wrath? Assuming I buy the item, could I sacrifice other luxuries to mitigate that risk? Do I want this item largely because I envy the fact that someone else has it while I do not? Am I secretly hoping out of pride that this new object will make me seem superior to others? Perhaps going without the item could be an exercise in humility that would teach me to care less when peers have things I do not.
Questions like these are just some examples of how well-chosen constraints can focus our choices in a way that maintains our self-mastery. As indicated earlier, this keeps us free to grow in happiness rooted in our faith. Balanced judgment requires prudence, which develops gradually, so do not be discouraged by imperfection. All we can do is our best and apply lessons learned to future decisions. Tech professionals certainly have fun applying that mentality to improvement of their products, as do TV cooks to their recipes. And it is a mindset that can lead to joy far more profound when applied to our lives as followers of Jesus Christ.
~ Br. Andy Opsahl, O.P.