Sunday night’s Emmys celebrated The Handmaid’s Tale, the dramatization of Margaret Atwood’s 1980s dystopian masterpiece. The story lands us in a reimagined America that has undergone the equivalent of Iran’s Islamic Revolution—but at the hands of a pseudo-Christian sect, the “Sons of Jacob.” We see this world through the eyes of Offred, a woman kept for reproductive purposes in an increasingly infertile land. We experience her loss of autonomy as an oppressed woman in a military regime that claims divine authority.
Inhabiting this world, even through the medium of film or fiction, makes us gasp for freedom.
As a woman living in New England, where The Handmaid’s Tale is set, I resonate with her story. I can close my eyes and imagine what it might be like to live her life. But as a privileged, white woman living in the land of the free, and raised on a steady diet of self-determination, when I open my eyes the landscape is quite the opposite. I have all the freedom in the world.
So why would I choose to constrain my freedom with religious beliefs, the very thing Offred is seeking to escape?
Paradox of Choice
As 21st-century global citizens, it seems obvious to us that freedom brings happiness. Give me enough options and I will find the ideal job, the optimal graduate degree, the perfect spouse. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt observes that “choice and its frequent associate freedom are the unquestioned goods of modern life.” But Haidt goes on to note that our infatuation with choice has disappointed us. Indeed, multiple psychological studies have shown that when people are given a large array of options, they’re less likely to make a choice and less satisfied with their choice if they do make one—whether picking a chocolate or a career. In a popular TED talk, psychologist Barry Schwartz calls this the “paradox of choice.”
So what can bring us satisfaction? In 1956, psychologist Jack Brehm discovered that the act of committing increases our satisfaction with our choice, even if other options were truly equivalent. He called this the free-choice paradigm. Likewise, in his book Stumbling on Happiness, Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert describes an illuminating study in which a group of students were invited to shoot and develop 12 photographs. They then chose one of the prints to take home. Half the students were told that their decision was final; the other half could come back within a week and change their mind.
In the days and weeks following the study, the students’ satisfaction with their prints was assessed. The results? Those who made a definite commitment were more satisfied with their print than those who made a provisional choice—both within the exchange window and also beyond it.
Our belief in maximizing freedom and choice leaves us packing too many decisions into each day. We fragment our lives with unlimited options online, flicking from one feed to the next and feeding our anxiety. We resist routines that would help us get the sleep our bodies crave. We disengage from consistent community—for example, the regular religious participation that has been shown to improve mental and physical health—because we want to keep our options open. We move in rather than marrying, because we want to try each other out, not realizing that couples who live together before marriage are more likely to divorce. We struggle to construct our identity out of the unlimited options available to us.
So is freedom simply bad for us? Certainly not. Without freedom, creativity is crippled. Service becomes slavery. Societies become regimes. We rightly relish the freedoms we enjoy, and (at our best) we fight passionately for the freedom of others. The world of The Handmaid’s Tale truly is a nightmare.
But how can we exercise freedom and harness its goods without drowning in unlimited choice or falling prey to commitment-phobia?
Framework for Freedom
For all the evils committed in the name of Jesus, Christianity has been an unparalleled movement for freedom. In his first sermon, Jesus announced that he’d come to bring good news to the poor, freedom for prisoners, deliverance for the oppressed (Luke 4:18). But the Christian worldview also offers a framework for our freedom. It values commitment in relationships over optimizing compatibility. It offers a purpose in life that doesn’t depend on making all the right selections from unlimited options. It values how we work more than which job we do and gives us freedom to act within moral boundaries, rather than leaving us to construct our lives in a vacuum.
The Bible has a word for pursuing unlimited self-fulfillment: slavery.
The Bible has a word for pursuing unlimited self-fulfillment: slavery. Jesus promises his first followers a different way—that they will know the truth and the truth will set them free (John 8:32). And this freedom isn’t a means to self-satisfy, but a mandate to serve. As Jesus tells his shocked disciples, “Even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28).
Are you seeking to maximize your options and pursue your own satisfaction? In terms of modern psychology and the ancient wisdom of Scripture, you may want to rethink your approach. As New York Times columnist David Brooks astutely observes, “It’s the things you chain yourself to that set you free.”
- False Freedom and the Slavery of Autonomy (Derek Rishmawy)