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Monday, August 4, 2014

The Life Altering Power of Choice



The Life Altering Power of Choice
          I normally have a rather comical side to the blogs I write, or at least try to tie some humor of certain life observations or spiritual lessons I discuss, in order to bring an optimistic smile to those who may sacrifice a few moments of time to read what I have tried to say.  But today I want to write with a more serious tone of something that literally has a life or death level of impact in our existence and happiness: The life altering power of Choice!

          Agency (or the ability to choose for ourselves) is a gift from God.  Life, health, breath and all our senses are also gifts from God, but despite all our efforts, we don’t’ have much control over those things.  We are all prone to sickness, disease and eventually death. But choice is different.  It is the one thing of actual power that we possess independently ourselves.

          Now many of the choices we make aren’t of the life or death variety, such as: what brand of toothpaste we use, what color of clothes we wear, what kind of cereal we eat for breakfast, etc… and many in society use that rationale and extend it out into the public concepts that people can choose to live however they want and it’s okay, because whatever pleases that individual is his/her right of choice.  They plead their case out into the arenas of defining what marriage is, claiming that pornography or infidelity is acceptable behavior, or legalization of drugs is a right or simple freedom of choice for those who want to indulge in such behavior.
          But many of the choices we make actually do have a life or death level of influence in our lives, such as: "Am I going to stop at the red light at the busy intersection?"
          You see, I can choose to jump off a cliff without a parachute if I want to experience the brief and false feeling of flight, but I can’t alter the laws of gravity to prevent the subsequent crushing outcome of landing on the jagged rocks below.
          Let me illustrate this point by sharing a personal story of a friend of mine, (whom I will not name).   When we were young kids, we lived across the street from one another, went to school together in the same grade, were deacons in our local church, camped out with our local Boy Scout group, had sleep-overs, etc…  In many ways we were from what most would say were similar environments.
          But along the way as the years went by and we advanced up into the Junior High School age, something happened to my friend and neighbor.  His parents got divorced when he was 8 years old (I don’t know the exact reasons why and won’t begin to speculate here), but this broken home led to some gradual differences over time.
          It wasn’t apparent during childhood, but he suffered from a condition known as “delayed growth syndrome”, which became apparent when I and most of his classmates hit puberty and started to grow facial hair and muscles, while he stayed small in stature with physically stunted growth.  Unfortunately this led to many of the kids in school teasing or harassing him at times.  He seemed to laugh and take it all in stride, but I know personally that it hurt him and caused him to feel like he didn’t fit into the normal group anymore.
          If I remember correctly, he went away for a while one summer between our 8th and 9th grade years, to either spend time with his father or an uncle.  I don’t know if it was to give his mother a break or spend some time with a male figure in his life, but when he came back at the start of the next school year he had changed in some small ways.
          He no longer came to church with the other boys, and because he was staying physically smaller, he no longer participated in the school sports activities.  As a result of this and the unfortunate occasional jokes as his expense, he started hanging out with a different group of kids who were also outcasts of a sort, because they liked to swear, sneak smoking cigarettes and drinking a few beers, etc…  (This behavior may be common among many areas of the country, but in our hometown of Rexburg, Idaho which is a fairly majority Mormon town, it was an aberrational behavior).  But these kids accepted him into their group of “different” kids and soon he chose to adopt some of their other behaviors, which unfortunately grew into experimentation with further alcohol and drug use.
          I didn’t know it at the time, but because of the teasing, he tried some medically supervised hormone treatments to increase his physical growth, but which had the unfortunate side effect of making him irritable and angry.  This combination soon led to some behavioral problems which had him in and out of the juvenile detention system, and as the rest of us progressed into high school, he wasn’t around very much at all.  He dropped out of school and I kind of lost track of him for a while as I went on with my own teenage life.
          At that time, as my friend drifted away, I started to come to a deeper realization of the importance of my family and religion in my life.  After my graduation from high school I voluntarily chose to serve a 2 year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Los Angeles, and experienced the wonderful growth and development that came with serving and giving of myself for the benefit of others.
          Unbeknownst to me, while I was away serving in California, my lost friend was battling a severe addiction to Cocaine.  With a juvenile record and an addiction, he had also turned to a life of crime in order to steal money for more drugs.  This next part of the story might be a little hard to read, but it is all completely true.
          On July 15, 1987, while I was away teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ in Los Angeles, my friend attempted to rob a small grocery store in a nearby town of Ashton, Idaho.  He had hidden in the back of Jack’s Grocery Store with a gun and watched as the wife of the owner, a mother of two children, brought the cash from the registers back into safe.  Thinking she had left he came out of hiding to steal the money, but she returned and caught him.  He shot her in the stomach and then promised to call an ambulance for her if she opened the safe.  When she did, he then shot her point blank in the head and killed her.  He was later caught and confessed to the crime.
          When I returned home from my mission on December 24th, 1987 to a joyful celebration with my family, my former friend was on trial for first degree murder. He was convicted, narrowly avoiding the death penalty, and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

          There are several factors about this story that I would like to discuss.  While some of the things apply directly to my friend’s situation, they also have some general relation to the world at large.  I am certainly not trying to tackle every social issue in depth, but simply pose some general comparisons and thoughts about certain issues.

          As I mentioned before, I don’t know the reason behind why my friend’s parents were divorced.  Divorce was still quite rare back in those days, but in today’s society with the at-fault divorce process the rates are staggering.  Couples seem to view marriage as something of convenience and throw the commitment and covenants of marriage out the window as soon as things get a little difficult or tough, leaving behind broken homes with single parents struggling to raise children and confused children often blaming themselves for why mom and dad aren’t still together.
          Think of just a few of the ramifications of choosing divorce (which we can’t possibly cover completely here), but single parents are more likely to end up needed government or church welfare assistance to survive, which can degrade feelings of self-worth.  Or often the single parent is forced to leave the home to work more, leaving behind a society of latch-key children who, without the regular influence of two parents are then left to video games, television or other peers to find their way through many of their formative years.
          Think of how the choice of viewing pornography has affected marital relationships and views of sexual intimacy in society.  With such filth and perversion so readily available in today’s world, many struggle with addictions that literally alter thinking patterns in the brain, degrade women, contribute to world problems of child kidnapping and a whole underworld of human trafficking that supporters of pornography like to sweep under the rug and pretend doesn’t exist.  The personal choices people make along this path, thinking that it is a personal and private decision, have ramifications which literally ripple out through generations of broken souls and lives.
          Consider how the choice of consuming alcohol can affect relationships.  Now I know that many feel that casual drinking is okay and doesn’t affect them, but anything that dulls your senses and removes inhibitions can lead to changed behavior, more serious alcoholism, which in turn has a history of domestic violence, shattered homes, and crime.  While not the case for many, the fact still remains that most hard core drug addictions likely begin with the initial choices of recreational smoking or alcohol consumption, which then leads to further drug experimentation and more serious addiction like my friend.
          Then there is the choice many teenagers and youth make to tease, bully or socially isolate others because they are different.  The news headlines are full of stories of teenage suicide, shooting rampages, or acts of violence which are related to these social issues, all of which stem from the lack of respect for others, absence of human decency, selfishness, and general decline in societal values.
          We could go on and discuss volumes about how moral and societal declines are related to increased divorce, violence, crime and so forth, but that is not the main point I want to expound on today.  And although my friend had a series of unfortunate things in his life, like the divorce of his parents, and physical problem, etc… I am not attempting to say that his problems were all the fault of someone else (although those things certainly did contribute to his situation).
          What I’m really trying to point out here is how our individual choices affect so much further than just our own personal satisfaction and situation.

          My friend’s choices left behind a devastated mother and siblings, not to mention a widower and two children who had to be raised without a mother, which in turn impacted their lives and subsequently many others.

          Now I am nothing special and have made my own share of mistakes along the way, but I have often thought over the years how our lives, though my friend and I started out in very similar circumstances, could have taken us in different directions.  I have at times lamented and wondered if I perhaps could have done something to help him.  Yet I feel so very blessed to have all of the wonderful freedoms and loving family relationships I personally enjoy.
          The fact is that we are all a result of the choices we make with the agency we have been given from a loving Heavenly Father, who wants to bless us and help us become more like Him if we will but use that agency to choose to follow Him.

          When as individuals and a society we choose to follow our own path of selfish, personal, fleeting gratification outside of the Lord’s guidelines, then an unfortunate ripple effect of broken hearts, broken homes and opportunities lost becomes evident in not only individuals, but society and the world at large today.  Thinking that our personal choices don’t have an effect on others around us is foolish.  The world, nations, states and local communities are merely the combined result of individuals and families and how they function. When viewed in that light of magnification, the individual choices we make every day have more of a life and death impact on our communities and nations than we can possibly realize.
          I know that many may disagree with these views and opinions. But the effect of the difference in choices between me and my friend is just an example of how a single choice or pattern of choices can, if we are not careful, can lead us down a vastly different path than we could ever imagine.

          My hope is that we can all comprehend a little more clearly how our individual choices impact not only ourselves, but our families (including generations yet to come), and so much more than we realize.  That is why the unchanging standards and commandments of God and the personal behavior that comes from following those values is so vitally needed in our personal lives and the world at large today!
          Just think of how different individuals, families and communities would be if each individual or their own free will and choice lived and taught the Christian standards and principles of love, respect, service and compassion for those around them!
          As I mentioned before, I realize that many may disagree with some of this thinking, and everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but if so, I challenge you to show me a better, more effective way to solve individual, family or world problems.

          Study and implementation of societal and government programs cannot and will never be able to replace the powerful effect and positive change in individuals, families, communities, nations and the world, as each individual's choice to follow the commandments and gospel of Jesus Christ!
          And that all starts with the individual choices we make each and every day!

“A determining and defining moment lies ahead for all mortals. Yet that defining moment turns on our choices today.” – Elder Neal A. Maxwell