What I’m learning about choice and gratitude from not skipping songs on my iPod

March 19, 2014 | 44 comments

One of my Lenten sacrifices is not skipping songs on my iPod. I can choose the playlist, but if a song does not fit my mood, I can’t skip it.

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, part of my inspiration was this 2009 post from Betty Duffy. The excerpt that has stuck with me all these years is this:

I set [the iPod] on “shuffle” and skip song after song that appears on the screen. “No. Not that. Can’t tolerate this one right now. Does not match my mood.” Music must serve me by sustaining desired feelings or changing undesirable ones. And it had better not challenge me, because my life is challenging enough.

It’s sad.

It’s sad because it is yet another sign of my insistence on making everything I touch, see, hear, taste, or smell reflect my emotions and my experience. And it is another sign of how almost all technological gadgetry has the ability to foster narcissism.

I have thought of those words almost every week since I first read them, and they were a big part of the inspiration for this Lenten fast.

There was another, slightly less erudite source of inspiration too:

Highwater running pants. Because designers hate tall women.

Highwater running pants. Because designers hate tall women.

I was out for a jog during one of the last cold spells, and I couldn’t change songs on my iPod because I was wearing gloves. I didn’t want to have to keep taking off the gloves, and I’d begun to despair that I wouldn’t be able to control my music. But then I had a stroke of genius in which I remembered that touch screens sense the warmth in your skin. All of my skin was wrapped in warm layers of clothing, except…my nose! Of course! That’s how I could still use my iPod!

As if I have not already startled my poor neighbors enough with my attempts at exercise, I can only imagine what they thought to see the crazy jogging woman lumbering down the street in freezing drizzle, occasionally rubbing her iPod on her nose.

(Hi. My name is Jen. And I’m ridiculous.)

Anyway, after the second time I had to stop to look up a new song — WITH MY NOSE — it occurred to me: I am really attached to being able to listen to the perfect song.

Right then and there, I committed to give up skipping songs for Lent. (After I nose-chose the perfect tune, of course.)

As Ash Wednesday approached, I began to second-guess the decision because it seemed so silly. I almost backed out of the commitment, but I’m so glad I didn’t. As insignificant a sacrifice as it may seem on the surface, it’s already been quite transformative.

Blossoms on trees: the kind of thing I've begun to notice now that I'm not fixating on song choices when I'm running.

Blossoms on trees: the kind of thing I’ve begun to notice when I run, now that I’m not fixating on song choices.

Yesterday evening, for example, I was driving home from dropping something at my mom’s house, and I had a rare moment of being in the car by myself. It was a chance to blast the stereo and lose myself in the music, which is one of my favorite pleasures in the world. Immediately, an old song came on that is not my favorite. I’ve been meaning to take it off of my main playlist for years, so I instinctively reached to skip it.

Then I remembered that I had to let it play.

Since my only other choice was silence, I decided to make the best of the song.

During the first few seconds, which I’ve always found kind of grating, I thanked God for artists who are willing to put themselves out there to make music. I listened carefully to each instrument, and realized for the first time that this was an impressively complicated arragement, involving expert use of multiple instruments.

Then I paid close attention to the lyrics and realized that the words were actually quite thought-provoking. Even though the tune still isn’t quite my style, I found myself deeply connected to what the artist was trying to convey, and it triggered in me a flurry of inspiration. My mind was filled with new ideas and new angles on old ideas, none of which would have come to me if I’d skipped the song.

I ended up driving aimlessly around the neighborhood to listen to the music for a while longer. As I let the songs flow, taking whatever inspiration I could draw from each of them, it occurred to me that I was in a completely different mindset than normal.

Specifically: I had been freed from a heavy, ever-present feeling of buyer’s remorse.

I took this shot while agonizing which restaurant to visit on a date night. #firstworldproblems

I took this shot while agonizing which restaurant to visit on a date night. #firstworldproblems

When I listen to music in my normal mode, part of me is always wondering if I chose the best song. I thought I was in the mood for a Paul Oakenfold dance remix, but maybe it’s hiphop kind of afternoon? What about the Gypsy Kings — would I be more inspired if I were listening to one of their acoustic masterpieces?

It’s like when I’m at the restaurant, and I order fried shrimp but then spend the entire time wondering if I should have asked for the mushroom swiss burger. Once I get myself in “Choosing What’s Best for Jen” mode, it’s hard to get out. With each bite of shrimp, I’m wondering if my tastebuds would be even more pleased by Angus beef covered in mushrooms.

But, as I’m realizing this Lent, that energy-sapping feeling of regretting my choices is dependent on having choices in the first place.

Not having a choice about which song I listen to makes me calculate finding pleasure in songs differently. Instead of actively working to perfectly assemble the music so that it will make me happy, I derive happiness from whatever is in front of me. The switch in mindsets in the same switch you make when you go from being a shopper making a purchase to being a recipient receiving a gift. One involves feeling powerful, deciding which among a variety of items will best please you; the other involves receptivity, seeking what is good in whatever you have been given.

If I were stranded in the wilderness, hungry, and a rescue team showed up with a plate of fried shrimp, a mushroom swiss burger would be the furthest thing from my mind. I would thank God for every single morsel of the shrimp, not just because I was hungry, but because it was my only choice.

When I’m in Choice Mode, I am counting on my own decision-making skills to bring me happiness, which opens the floodgates for all sorts of analysis and second-guessing. When I have no choices, however, I automatically switch into Gift-Receiving Mode. And in that mode, it’s second nature to find what’s good in whatever you have received.

We live in an age where we can not only choose whatever wine would most please us,  but control its temperature DOWN TO THE DEGREE.

We live in an age where we can not only choose whatever wine would most please us, but control its temperature DOWN TO THE DEGREE.

This gives me new insight into why the poor are closer to God, and why people who lived before the modern era were too:

Perhaps the defining characteristic of 21st-century first-world life is our sheer amount of choices — we have endless control over everything from what we eat to what music we hear to what the temperature is inside our houses.

And the more control you have, the more you begin to think that you don’t need God — because, frankly, you feel like you are a god.

Trying to be a god is exhausting. As even my silly fast from skipping songs has shown, it takes up so, so much energy to live my life trying to control my environment to make sure that it is all perfectly suited to my tastes.

This iPod experiment has inspired me to give up choices in other areas as well, to stop trying to be god of my own little universe. It’s not easy for an Olympian control freak like me. But when I do? Suddenly, everything becomes a gift.

I can only be truly present in this moment,  once I've fully let go of the option to be somewhere else.


  1. Madeline

    But you left us hanging… what was the song you were stuck with that became so inspiring?!

    • Smoochagator

      I was wondering the same thing!

  2. Leah @ Unequally Yoked

    Heh, when it’s cold, and I pray Divine Office on the way to work, I keep scrolling through my iBreviary with my nose and hoping it’s not too disrespectful.

  3. Anabelle@Written By the Finger of God

    You nailed it Jen (with your nose). I grew up in the Philippines and the poor are very close to God for the reasons you cite. They are always grateful and they have to so much to teach us about faith, hope and trust in providence.

  4. Smoochagator

    My fast this Lent is Facebook, and I felt like it was such a silly fast, like what am I, 16 years old? But it has really been interesting and kind of humbling, like what am I, a narcissistic 16-year-old? Over and over I keep thinking of a post you wrote about a week-long internet fast you took, and how frustrating/eye-opening it was to not be able to send your every witty quip out into the world via Twitter. I guess my friends and family are just withering up and dying without my insights on rotten bananas and the samples table at our local wholesale club. Or not.

    The inspiring thing is that a friend of mine said she’s really missed me on Facebook, since it’s our main method of communication. So I’ve learned that although I can let FB be a real ego-stroking time suck, it DOES have its redeeming qualities. After Easter Sunday, I may have to try to learn *gasp* BALANCE.

    I really enjoy these sorts of insights from you, and I have to say that I agree, your writing has changed so much in the years that you’ve worked on your book. Not that your old posts are bad – they aren’t! they’re great, otherwise you wouldn’t have so many faithful readers – but you’ve grown so much as a writer, which is awesome to see 😀

    • Anne McD

      Smoocagator, I gave up FB, too, and felt like it was the dumbest thing for me to give up. Wow, was I wrong! Not only did I come to the sad, scary realization that I have been staring at a stupid little screen instead of my children’s faces all. the. time., but like you said, there have been so many times when a thought pops into my head, and I seem to think I need to announce it to the whole world! Talk about an ego check! 🙂

  5. Mary

    This is so true. The times when my choices are lessened are the times when I live with the most gratitude. And another reason why I hate going to malls. Also something I notice in parenting as well. (And I agree with the above. I love these types of posts from you.)

  6. Judy Bettinger

    Excellent post, as usual, Jen! I do have one question that pops into my mind every time I see that photo of your feet: are those toe socks that you have on under those barefoot shoes? 😉

  7. Olivia @ To the Heights

    This is such a great reflection, Jen. So often we do get caught up in everything that WE can control that we forget who is truly in control. I love that this “little” Lenten sacrifice of yours is truly bearing fruit. Thank you for sharing it with us! Keep us posted on how this sacrifice continues throughout Lent – it’s terrific food for thought!

  8. Anne McD

    It was a Dan Folgenberg song, wasn’t it? 😉

    We really do live in a culture where we can have EVERYTHING, can’t we? Its amazing how it has permeated every facet of our lives, and like you said, makes us more like little gods, instead of leaning on God, even with seemingly inconsequential things, like music choices. Thanks for the thoughts. 🙂

  9. Anne

    Boy, did you nail it.

    Another case in point: deciding what to watch on Netflix, Instant Amazon Video, various other Internet venues…..decision making to the point of paralyzation

    Little gods. Too much choice. Too much about me.

    St. Joseph, pray for us!

    Thanks, Jen! 🙂

  10. chalayn

    I loved this post, Jen! So very much.
    I, like you, often flip through song after song looking for one that suits my mood. I have never considered that to be a sign of my own desire for instant gratification, control, and catering to my own fleeting, roller-coastering emotions.
    Perhaps my favorite line of your post was this: “And the more control you have, the more you begin to think that you don’t need God — because, frankly, you feel like you are a god.” Preach.

    • chalayn

      P.S. I’m also grateful that you pointed out that without so many choices, we are the gift-receiver and more easily see what we have as blessings to be thankful for. So good!

      P.P.S. I completely understand about having high-water workout pants. If designers supposedly make clothing for models who are all 5’10” and up, why is it SO MANY pants aren’t long enough for little ol’ 5’10” me?!

      P.P.P.S. Now that I think about it…. Thank you, God, that I even have too short workout pants.

  11. Becky

    God has given you a real gift, Jen, and I am so thankful you share it. I love the amount of silly and trivial you mix with really important and profound stuff. I have to tell you, your recent posts on relaxing and how God gives us a certain amount of time to accomplish a certain amount of tasks have really touched how I approach my everyday life! So, so thankful for your wisdom and insight. THANKS!!

  12. Amy

    This is very thought-provoking. I really love what you gave up and what you are getting from it. It never would have occurred to me to look at it like this. But you’re totally right. Too many choices are distracting and make so much noise in our lives. I think I might try this!

  13. The other Becky

    There have been serious sociological studies, done by serious secular professionals that show that having more choices makes people less happy.

    Think about this next time you try to make your kids happier by giving them lots of choices. ( not you personally, Jen, I just mean any of us).

  14. Carin

    This post really spoke to me.I totally agree that too many choices can take us away from what’s really important, and make us believe that we are the only important thing because we made this happen. Thank you for making me think that even listening to the ipod can send me to God.

  15. Cheri

    I’ve been thinking about this same subject ever since I read this article: http://www.raptitude.com/2013/06/why-the-minimalists-do-what-they-do/

    Here’s a excerpt from the article:
    the minimalist movement isn’t frivolous or snobby, they’re on to something significant. Voluntarily having less, and less to choose from, delivers real dividends on happiness, particularly when it comes to its ability to reduce daily decisionmaking and the stress points that go with it.

    It’s the first time I’ve given minimalism any thought. I’m always trying to reassess my time and trying to figure out how to spend it. I had no idea how much time I was wasting making little decisions about stuff.

    And how can I ponder the big questions and the big life changing decisions when my time is eaten up by picking out onesies? Or making five different kinds of breakfasts for my kids?

    I’ve slowly been trying to simply areas of my life where decision making was eating up my time ( and my kids time): clothing, toys, books, food choices, etc… It’s made such a difference in our lives! It kind of reminds me of a bumper sticker I once read: To have more, desire less.

    • Catholic Lawyer Mama

      Thank you for posting the link to this article! So insightful. So much to think about and ponder!

  16. Patty

    WOW. This makes so.much.sense. Such a little action of making sure I have the perfect song in a moment that suits my needs, you’re right, it is narcissist. Your experiment really speaks to an unfortunate idea in our culture:that I only do/listen/care about something if it makes me feel good about myself or if I feel like it…good thoughts Jen!!

  17. Karen

    This was great, Jen; love your writing, anyway, and especially when it hits close to home. I couldn’t help but think of the book Paradox of Choice while I was reading your insightful post.

    Choice is something I struggle with, and my daughter does as well, although from a different angle. It’s interesting how much calmer our lives are when there is less choice ;). Much to think about here ….


  18. Becky

    This is lovely! I often am paralyzed by choices and question my decisions all the time…the paralysis of analysis almost always gets the best of me. Thank you for this reminder.

  19. Anna Barber

    This is interesting. Your thoughts about all the choices we have (and the time cost of choosing) reminds me of a book I read about ten years ago titled Margin, by Richard Swenson. A description from the Margin website: “Margin is the space between our load and our limits and is related to our reserves and resilience. It is a buffer, a leeway, a gap; the place we go to heal, to relate, to reflect, to recharge our batteries, to focus on the things that matter most. Margin offers seventy-five practical prescriptions for restoring margin in the essential areas of emotional energy, physical energy, time, and finances. Margin restores what culture has taken away: time to listen, strength to care, space to love.” I think you’d enjoy it.

    • Lisa V.

      This sounds interesting. I am going to look into this book. Thanks for sharing.

  20. Agnes @ Restless Until I Rest in Thee

    Holy crap Jen! What an awesome and thought-provoking post!!!!!! especially the last few paragraphs – AMAZING!!!! I’m pretty sure I’m going to write an entire blog post inspired by those last few paragraphs of yours! Again, Ah-mazing!

  21. Rebekka

    Not very Lenten (I guess you should offer it up), but have you checked longtallsally for activewear? I know they have yoga pants that are at least 36″ inseam, maybe they also have running pants.

  22. Julia at LotsaLaundry

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how often God asks us to respond with flexibility, rather than control.

    You nailed it on the concept that the more choices we have, the more we think it’s all about us and what will make us happy. And then we start to think that God is all about making us happy. And then we wonder why we’re not strong enough/faithful enough/brave enough to pick up the cross that’s given to us (and why we can’t have a more pleasant cross, instead).

    Nice post.

  23. Rowsdower

    As usual, great post. I love that you use an infrared thermometer! They are the best!

  24. Stephanie Sullivan

    Hi, Jen! I love how deep you go with a simple thing and how much truth you expose. Thank you for your insight. I am grateful for your friendship. Have an awesome day.

  25. Anna

    This post spoke to me very strongly. Which is probably the reason I have a pouty frown on my face. I am not skilled at this gift receiving mode, and many life choices have been taken away from me as of late. Thanks, Jen, for reminding me to depend on God and not on my own decision making skills.

    • Anna

      Also, I can hardly begin to tell you how much I appreciate you actually discuss the experience of suffering, however small it may be. You not only give insight into its meaning, but you acknowledge the real pain it causes. People love to tell me to “offer it up.” That would be great if I had any idea what that meant or how to do it. It might also help if it had not been said in the tone of, “get over it.” A thousand times, thank you for your very real and immensely helpful posts.

  26. Tracy G in SLP

    Jen, this post is absolutely brilliant. Thank you! It’s amazing how small choices can lead to transformations. This Lent I’m also making a seemingly small sacrifice. I gave up crocheting…for myself. I am utterly addicted to crocheting and didn’t want to give it up entirely. It’s a great stress reliever and creative outlet. So I decided I could still do it, but only for other people. Right now I’m making a baby blanket for a pregnancy resource center and a baby sweater for a coworker who’s pregnant. But I’ve also been inspired to make some smaller, spontaneous projects for other people that they’ve really appreciated. And I’ve found that I’ve been noticing other ways I can be generous to others. All because of a simple mindset shift. What you articulated in your post explains why that’s so. Thank God for Lent!

  27. Roxane B. Salonen

    Dear Jen, what interesting timing. A sweet Catholic from from Canada recently sent me a treasure of a book called “Interior Freedom” by Jacques Philippe and I’ve been enjoying it in bits during my weekly visit to Jesus in Adoration. It’s small but packed full of insights (the underlining is getting ridiculous). I was at Adoration last night reading a section pertaining to choice, and our misguided ideas of freedom. Just one small snippet: “In some respects, the elements we choose in life are far less important than the ones we don’t have any choice about.” I think you would really enjoy this book and you’ll probably zip through it in a day. God bless, friend!

  28. Monica

    Jennifer, NOBODY does it like YOU! You are the BEST! My reflections from today’s post:

    1. Everything in life is a gift. Start to realize this and the desire to control details and daily happenings will fade away.

    2. Desire to control points to a distrust in God to provide exactly what we need when we need it.

    3. New insights, greater appreciation and joy for life and the world will come when I practice living more like a foreign traveler and less like a god.

    4. God knows me better than I know myself. He wants me to receive reality as the true gift that it is: full of surprise and wonder.

    5. Get ready and ENJOY the ride!

    All the best to you, Joe and the kids, from your faithful fan,


  29. dave

    If this is a repeat of a previous comment, my apologies.
    Next time (next Lent? next week?) you might try giving up the music altogether. Lent is supposed to be a sacrifice, after all, and leaving the music at home on your jog could provide more introspection and inspiration rather than trying to apply someone else’s ideas. Reach within and listen for the voice of God speaking to you.
    God bless you and yours,

  30. Melissa

    This post resonated with me. 30 years ago, I spent two years living in a small village in Botswana (in southern Africa) and shopping for anything generally involved choosing between the one selection or nothing. People there did not have many material things, yet they were some of the happiest, kindest people I have ever known. I distinctly remember going out to buy some toothpaste at the grocery store shortly after I returned to the US. I stood there in front of the display and was so overwhelmed by the vast number of choices that I ended up just walking out of the store. I miss those days when the most important part of the shopping trip was the asking of the store owner about how she was, how her children were, commenting on the weather, and so on, rather than the actual item purchased.

  31. Trixie

    So…I’m one of those Protestants that doesn’t make Lenten sacrifices. But, I was so curious about the not skipping songs thing that I decided to try it today.

    I’M NOT EVEN SKIPPING THE CHRISTMAS ONES. And honestly…it is refreshing! I’ve been having a grumpy day (and week), and somehow this is taking away a lot of stress. More than just ‘song skipping stress’. Way cool.

    • Trixie

      As I was typing this…Handel’s ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ came on.


      • Jennifer Fulwiler

        Oooooh, that is seriously cool. A sign? 🙂

  32. Michelle

    I’ve missed home too much. I can’t wait to get back home. There are some stuffs I can get to do in the States that I can’t do here.


  33. Eric Smith


    My wife reads your blog all the time and is a fan. She made me read your post about choice and gratitude. I am glad she did; Ironically, serving as a human iPod “read list” for me.

    It really spoke to me. Your humor and writing style is very relatable.

  34. Arkanabar

    I just read your 7 Quick Takes on the anniversary of Pope Francis’s election, and I am given to think that not keeping up-to-the-minute with the news also reduces one’s tendency to self-deify. Like control, information can lead you to set God aside.

  35. Amy

    I really appreciated this post because I too suffer from anxiety over having too many choices. This really helps put things into perspective and instead of worrying if I made the best choice I’m going to start being grateful for what I’ve been given. Loved this!

  36. Lisa V.

    Jen, I couldn’t get this idea of yours out of my head. Something so simple and something one might think on the surface is silly to use as a fast, actually seemed to me perhaps to make a lot of sense. So I tried it. I had to. It was awesome. My impulse to keep changing channels wired me up, but when I could just settle, relax and LISTEN and ENJOY what I had, a whole different experience. Plus I listened to songs I hadn’t listened to in years and it was fun. So thank you. It is definitely a practice I will continue, and not just for Lent.

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