Finding Freedom within Chosen Constraints
Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer

"Is my life any different since I became a Jesuit? Oh, yes…The rules of obedience, from the structure of the day to this assignment at the Vatican, have put me under constraints I did not have before, but they’re constraints of my choosing, which, like the rules of a sonnet, give me a framework to create a wonderfully fulfilled life."

These lines from Brother Guy Consolmagno’s book, Brother Astronomer: Adventures of a Vatican Scientist, and his ideas about constraints being a catalyst for greater happiness echo the work of Sheena Iyengar, a business school professor and author of The Art of Choosing. Ms. Iyengar was born legally blind and grew up in a traditional Sikh family in the United States — both to which she attributes her enduring fascination with choice, limits, and possibilities. 

She says she’s always been aware of the tension between honoring traditions and expressing individual preferences. In a recent interview, Iyengar discussed finding a sweet spot between choices and limits:

"I think that choice can be beautiful. It’s really the tool that enables us to create. But if it’s allowed to run wild, if we don’t have any direction and it doesn’t have any limits we can become really undirected…if you look around us today with the barrage of both information and choices we have…you’re seeing people struggling to hold on to focus."

Iyengar’s research suggests that we’re happier and feel more satisfied with our choices when we have fewer options. And, in a recent post on Sightings, theologian Martin Marty cited her work as it relates to “choice in religion.”

As I consider Iyengar’s ideas about “the art of choosing” and Brother Guy’s reflections on his happily constrained monastic life, I’m reminded of an iconic passage from Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar. Published in the early 1960s, the book’s bright college-aged protagonist envisions her future life choices — motherhood, career, travel — as plump figs on a tree. She can’t choose among these inviting figs and so she’s paralyzed:

"I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet."

For Plath’s heroine, choosing means shutting down possibilities. It’s a kind of death. I relate to this bleak way of experiencing choice as deprivation, particularly when I’m making financial decisions and my resources are constrained.

I wonder how you manage choice-making in your own life. Do constraints help? Does it matter if you’ve chosen the constraint or if it’s imposed on you? What kinds of constraints have you adopted? I look forward to reading your comments.

(The image above is a painting by Ivette Guzmán-Zavala, which was inspired by Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar.)

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