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Every day we have dozens of opportunities to exercise our agency. What to eat, what tasks to do first, which people to speak with, the very mood we have, scripture study, prayer, exercise, meditation, errands, spending, parenting, service—our options abound.
And many of us get caught up in the daily routine, the unrelenting schedule of getting our children where they need to be, performing our duties at work, buying groceries, cleaning, and increasingly responding to text messages on our cell phones.
Most of us have no problem discerning the difference between really good and really bad alternatives; the problem arises when there are two goods, or two greats—which one do we pick?
Sometimes a formula helps, so I’m going to suggest a very simple math formula that might simplify your choices. Remember > and <, the greater-than and less-than signs? I propose we use those to help us see quickly and distinctly which selection to make. By boiling it down to those symbols, we eliminate extraneous pressures that sometimes cloud our judgment.
For example, you’re weighing the pros and cons of visiting the Morgans, a family you minister to, and bringing them a treat. You know they love popcorn and your homemade recipe with special seasonings is their favorite. On the other hand, your buddies want you to come and play basketball at the church. You make a mental list—you haven’t seen the Morgans for awhile, but then Jim’s nephew just got back from his mission and he’ll be at the church. You know the Morgans could make their own popcorn. You’ll also be able to see Jim’s nephew at church on Sunday. The guys can probably get along without your rebounds. On the other hand, one more day won’t kill the Morgans, to wait for something like popcorn, after all. Our minds offer up a confusing array of duty, guilt, self- indulgence, and excuse-making.
But if you simply plug the selections into a formula and choose > or <, the choice becomes obvious. Which is the greater of these options, and which is the lesser? Instead of cluttering the process with unimportant details, we can clear out those cobwebs. We basically see things from a more Christlike perspective: Which is the greater good, really? Something for others, or something for yourself?
President Dallin H. Oaks once advised us to see our activities as good, better, and best. So often life offers us a multitude of good pursuits. But President Oaks said, “Some things are better than good, and these are the things that should command priority attention in our lives.” For example, spending time with one’s family is one of those golden choices one never regrets. But, President Oaks cautioned about allowing children to overemphasize sports and entertainment, “amusing themselves to death—spiritual death.” Thus, quality time interacting with one another is > overbooking our children in activities that have no unifying family impact.
Many members find that obstacles pop up every time they plan a temple trip. The adversary cleverly dresses these distractions as equally important. But if we use the > < formula, we can quickly decide if the diversion constitutes a real emergency, or merely something good to do later on.
None of us do this perfectly. We want to be of service to the Browns, but our favorite TV show is coming on. Sometimes it takes discipline and even courage to plug our choices into the > < formula. Dylan needs help with schoolwork, but I also need to get the lawn mowed before it rains. My spouse had a hard day and needs to vent, but then my day was no picnic, either. My brother-in-law, Gary, needs my help with his finances, but it’s the playoffs. Even sitting down with one’s child to discuss moral choices often seems like something we can put off because we’re simply uncomfortable with it.
Let’s look at the way this works:
Visit the Morgans > play basketball at church
Deal with a computer glitch < Attend the temple
Babysit for the Browns > watch TV
Mow the lawn < Help Dylan with schoolwork
Listen to my spouse vent > vent to my spouse
Watch the playoffs < Help Gary with finances
Have “the talk” with Emmy > not get embarrassed
I’m going to interrupt this with a news flash. I wrote this article a week ago, and the following day I spent several hours filling out an online form in order to submit my musical comedy to a particular theatre where I am most eager to see it produced. There were boxes to fill out about my experience as a playwright and the composer’s extensive experience as well, production history, a synopsis, the purpose of the work, what makes it compelling, marketing strategies, on and on. Then, at the bottom, I couldn’t get the sample pages to copy with proper formatting. So I called Microsoft and after staying on hold for what seemed like hours, I was disconnected. By now the application form timed out and completely disappeared. Hours of work simply gone.
It was now late. I was tired and frustrated, to say the least. But thought maybe I could work on this with a clear mind in the morning. Except I had already promised a friend to attend the temple with her that morning. But I can cancel, right? I mean, I should spend the morning trying to recreate my application while the wording is fresh in my mind. The temple will always be there.
And then I realized I was living one of the examples in this article. Not only did I have an urgent crisis to pull me from a temple commitment, but it was a computer glitch, and only one day after using that as a specific example in this article. It wasn’t a broken sprinkler, car trouble, or the dog needing to see the vet. It was the very thing I had written about. Would I take my own advice? Would I use the correct > or < sign? I prayed for clear recall of my information later, and went to the temple. I felt peace. I felt serenity. I was able to reconstruct my application later in the day. I’m just saying, sometimes I think coincidences are something more.
And occasionally we need to use the = sign. Even with big decisions such as where to move, it often doesn’t matter from an eternal perspective. When we don’t get clear answers to our prayers, it can sometimes be because either choice is fine.
All of us want to stay true to what we believe, and come closer to our Heavenly Father. We want the Savior’s atonement to be active in our lives. We really do. And, deep in our hearts, we know when choices point us one way or the other. But by visualizing a > or < sign when we feel tugged in two directions, we can more easily make choices we’ll be happy with later.
Hilton’s LDS novel, Golden, is available in paperback and on Kindle. All her books and YouTubeMom videos can be found on her website. She currently serves as an Interfaith Specialist for Public Affairs.