The Power of Choice
Most things in life are obtained for a price. For example, if you want to be informed, you must study. If you want to eat, you must work. When a person acts, there are always consequences. You are responsible for all decisions you make whether good or bad.
Society today prefers to assign blame to a particular political party rather than to individuals. Though you are not personally responsible for the consequences of lawmakers’ decisions, whether good or bad, you can maintain control of your reactions. You are not helpless. In America, as nowhere else, even one individual can cause change.
David O. McKay once said, “Next to the bestowal of life itself, the right to direct that life is God’s greatest gift.” But there is a fundamental challenge in choice. Our small choices often determine our big ones. Fun is here and now, but consequences, especially of misdeeds, usually lie farther down the road. So, what does this mean for us? Basically, our entire life is a test of how we will use our power of choice. For example, a student at college can choose to party rather than study. But he soon discovers that he does not have the freedom to dictate his final grades.
As we earthly ”soldiers” struggle to use our agency well, we must remember that it isn’t just the big tests of life that count; it’s also the daily quizzes. The decisions we make in the ordinary course of life events will determine how well we do with the major decisions inevitable in every life. It shouldn’t surprise us that it matters whether we read a tabloid magazine or an informational book, whether we eat a candy bar or an apple, or whether we always do what is most advantageous only for ourselves rather than considering the needs of others.
Sometimes we feel that our circumstances offer us no choice and we are simply victims of them. According to Virginia H. Pearce, “No despair is quite so overwhelming as when I have momentarily thought no choices were available and I am nothing more than a victim of the actions of others (Virginia H.Pearce, “Growing and Coping in a Complex World.”) The complete loss of one’s agency would be the very essence of hell.
But are we ever just victims in this life? No, we are not. One of the best secular discourses ever written on this subject is found in Victor E Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning.” In the midst of all the indignities and horrors of a concentration camp during World War II, this psychiatrist learned that we are always free to choose — no matter what our circumstances. “A human being … is ultimately self-determining. What he becomes — within the limits of his environment — he has decided for himself. In the concentration camps, for example… we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints. Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions, but not on conditions. …We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts, comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread.
They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances” (Victor E. Frankl, “Man’s Search for Meaning”). Certainly, these persons that Frankl describes did not first become saintly when they were placed in those camps. We can be sure they had already made many seemingly small decisions of a selfless and charitable nature.
A common aphorism states, “The time to begin building the ark is before the rains begin.” When the great trials are here, the time for preparation is past. If we are not to be found wanting, we must make good decisions on a day-to-day basis, for that is how character is built. “History turns on small hinges,” declared Thomas S. Monson, “and so do people’s lives. Decisions determine destiny.”
Practically speaking, how does this ultimate agency affect us? According to Virginia Pearce, it means that “we do not have the luxury of blaming others for our own actions or weaknesses…” As immature human beings, we want to assign blame. “At times we’ve all seen ourselves as victims of someone else’s behavior. Changing our thinking to focus on the given circumstances and responsibility for current choices can be liberating. If we truly understand and rejoice in agency, then we cannot get stuck blaming others” (Pearce, pg. 75).
The misconceptions that agency does not have consequences or that small decisions are unimportant are only two of the myths surrounding agency. A third misconception is that as long as we do not sin against the Ten Commandments, we are free to live as we please. Those who espouse that belief do not truly appreciate the opportunities we have to learn and serve while on this earth.
We are not here solely to avoid evil; we are here to do good. “Agency is not just the right to have fun without responsibility as many seem to suppose…Their attitude is shaped by their [desire] for pleasure. If they are not constantly entertained, they are bored.” But how entertaining was it for Washington and his threadbare soldiers to fight the war for independence? How much pleasure did his soldiers have at Valley Forge? It isn’t fun that builds a life? It is choosing to do many good things with our freedom of choice.
According to Robert M. Wilkes, “Freedom is not just freedom from interference, restraint, responsibility … The freedom of God is also the freedom to do. With our many opportunities, we ought to constantly ask ourselves “What freedom do I have today that I did not have a year ago? What new capacity do I have?” (Robert M. Wilkes, “Some Thoughts About Personal Freedom,” Ensign, July 1985, pg. 13).
One mother, a musician herself, struggled to teach her son to play the piano. He did obtain a little skill. Unfortunately for Mom, practicing the piano was not his definition of personal freedom. Eventually, the mother gave in to the boy’s wishes and abandoned the struggle. The young man was gleeful. He knew that he would never ever have a desire to touch the piano again. His mother, like so many others, felt that he would someday regret his decision because he had great talent.
Five years later this young man left for a church mission to Japan. At the conclusion of his mission, he made an admission to his mother. “I never thought I’d say this,” he confessed, “but there were times in my mission when I really wished I had taken the opportunity to learn to play the piano.” Since the young man had not taken that opportunity, he could not play, no matter how much he might have wished it.
But contrary to what some might presume, it could be argued that this same young man did use his agency wisely. During the time before his mission, his interests were becoming more and more fixed on computers and technology. Rather than spending his time on piano practice, he chose to gain knowledge in the technology field. The young man went on to earn a Master’s Degree in computer science. He paid the price to obtain great knowledge and ability in that field rather than in the field of music. He likely made an even better choice for his life. He could have learned to play the piano, or he could have learned about computers. But if instead of either, he had chosen to spend his time watching an endless series of sitcoms, his choice would not have been a good one because he would not have used his agency to better either himself or others.
It follows then that all proper use of agency leads to some form of self-improvement or service to others. If we are not refreshed, wiser, more spiritual, or more able to serve God and the people around us, then we have probably not used our agency wisely. What a waste of our lives that would be.