(This was a talk I gave at North Texas State University in the early 80s.)
You Always Have Choices
I guess the first choice confronting us as human beings is whether to live or die. It would seem to be an obvious choice and yet each year, in moments of extreme depression or frustration, many people take their own lives. It is tragic to think that those people have failed to see the opportunities that life has to offer. Still, many have considered that dark option when confronted with seemingly insurmountable obstacles in our lives. In times of disillusionment or confusion, sometimes it’s hard to know which way to turn or what step to take next. But there are always choices available which can lead toward a solution and there is no problem that can’t be conquered with time and patience!
In fact, if problems are viewed as opportunities for growth, they can be much easier to deal with. Sometimes problems exist in our lives because things are not just like we want them to be. But you have to remember that things could always be worse. Recall the saying, “I was unhappy because I had no shoes until I saw a man who had no feet!” Often, if we admit it to ourselves, many problems arise because we have something to learn about relating to other people. Usually, the best solution is to face the problem rather than to avoid it. We can choose to accept problems as our fate and give in, or we can choose to take action and grow from the experience. Some people are fatalists and others believe strongly in the ability to exercise their free wills. My grandfather, with his dry Midwestern sense of humor, used to say, “If you’re born to be hung, then you won’t be drowned!” But he constantly contradicted that fatalistic philosophy by making choices that were important to him in finding happiness.
Actually, we are all constantly confronted with both fate and the opportunity to shape our future courses of action. Certain events in our lives are going to occur more or less out of our control. The current fashionable that sums up this fatalistic attitude is, “Shit happens!” My concern is that the implication of the popular bumper sticker is that “Shit happens, it’s not my fault and there’s nothing I can do about it!” As far as I’m concerned, that’s a cop-out; there’s almost always something you can do about it. Oh sure, you can choose to use fate as an excuse to avoid conflict or to keep from confronting adversity in your life. But, you can choose not to accept a setback from certain events since you only have to regain the lost ground spiritually. Instead, you may choose to take action which moves you forward. Adversity in our lives is not really such a bad thing. Sure, no one wants to be constantly struggling to move ahead in life. But when you think about it, if everything was handed to you on a silver platter and there was never any challenge to test your patience, perseverance or determination, life would quickly become pretty boring.
Daily we are faced with literally dozens of choices, many of which are very important to our lives. Often choices are made out of feelings of guilt or obligation. The prelude to such choices may be a statement such as “I have to go practice,” or “I really should go see Susie,” or “I need to finish my English paper.” Actually, feeling guilt about something is a waste of energy. It would be better to take some kind of action leading to the accomplishing of a task or the solving of a problem. In other words, you can choose to feel guilty or you can do something about it. You don’t have to practice; you can choose to not play an instrument and channel your energy somewhere else. Or you can strengthen your conviction that you want to play well and become excited about improving through practice. You don’t have to go see Susie; you can put an end to the facade you have been carrying on with her. Or you can try to see the real value in her friendship and realize you really want to see her. You don’t have to finish your English paper and you don’t have to go to school to get a degree if it doesn’t interest you. A “slave attitude” toward a course usually results in a pretty bad experience! It would be much easier if you chose to make the subject interesting. You can choose to make the best out of all the degree requirements and get something out of even those courses that you don’t care for.
We human beings are amazing creatures. We have a great deal of innate intelligence, exceptional motor skills and the ability to reason, hope, dream and contemplate our existence. And yet, we are often so consumed with anxiety over our destiny that we totally overlook the joy of being alive each day. True, we seem to thrive on having future goals to work toward but we must not overlook the actual fact of our existence. We are alive each day to learn and realize more and more of our potential.
Regardless of one’s religious or idealogical beliefs, it is generally agreed that humans are the sum of three parts – mind, body and spirit. Many people have worked hard for many years to realize as much of their potential as possible in one or more or these areas. A scientist, mathematician or architect develops his mental powers to a high level. A fine athlete, cabinet maker or musician realizes a great deal of the potential of his body through highly developed motor skills. A religious leader, philosopher or author may realize a great deal of spiritual growth.
Briefly, consider some of the choices that you have with regard to these three parts of your being. You can choose to ignore your mental potential and only concern yourself with diversions and meaningless entertainment. They say that ignorance is bliss but how much can a person smoke, drink or watch TV before he starts to go crazy? Instead, you can choose to develop your mental powers of concentration so that you can learn many things about the world around you. You can tap the power of your subconscious mind and use it to help you discover the fantastic mental potential that not only you, but most of us, have.
You can choose to ignore the marvelous gift of life and fail to give any proper care to your body. Or you can choose to develop the intricate skills that your body is capable of in sports, music or other creative arts and crafts. You don’t have to become a jogging freak or a concert pianist to realize a great deal of satisfaction in activities which bring out your physical potential. You do, however, have to give attention to diet and health care because the body is susceptible to disease and illness.
Finally, our spirits need a lot of attention and nourishment just like the other facets of our being. The spirit is that part of us that feels, hopes, dreams and rejoices in the bright moments of life. If you want your spirit to soar, you must choose a positive environment with other spirits who want to soar as well.
Most of our activities in life involve simultaneous development of all three aspects of our beings. I think that we should all be striving to realize as much of that potential as possible. In the process, I believe we find a more complete meaning to life. I am not at all sure why I am here or where I came from, and I’m certain I don’t know where I’m going. But in the meantime, it seems foolish to miss the daily opportunities of life! Again, these opportunities also continually present us with choices and, I believe, that gradually the choices become clearer and easier to make.
Basically, many choices relate to deciding what really matters and what doesn’t. We tend to spend a lot of time worrying about things that really don’t matter and, unfortunately, not enough time attending to the things that do. For instance, does it really matter what someone thinks of you if you refuse to smoke a joint with them because you honestly don’t care to? You can choose to smoke a joint to be popular or you can be true to your convictions and choose your friends because of their value systems, not because of their diversions. If smoking a joint with someone is required to gain his friendship, then that isn’t a very sound basis for it. Instead, you may choose to base your friendships on trust, mutual respect and admiration.
When we begin to discover the endless variety and the extent of our potential, there is hardly time to be unhappy in life – there’s too much to do! At various times in my life I have become interested in, studied and taught myself as much as I could about such diverse things as electronics, carpentry, fishing, computers, automobiles, sports, camping, plumbing, photography, electrical wiring and the English language. Music is an extremely important part of my life. However, it’s not all of my life, nor is it the only path I could have chosen to express myself creatively as a human being. If one chooses to, he or she can be creative at any pursuit in life: in the way he deals with fellow workers in business, the way he deals with students as a teacher, the way he coordinates the construction of a building or the way he arranges a display in a grocery store.
So, start exercising your choices. Don’t choose to be with people who are complainers, who think that “Shit has happened” to them and there’s nothing they can do about it. Choose action and move forward to discover all that life holds for you. But do it only if you are willing to invest the time and effort. We’ve all heard the expression, “Anything worth doing is worth doing well!” To do anything well requires an investment of effort. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, no such thing as ten easy lessons, nor is anything handed to us on a silver platter!
In conclusion, I would like to state a few of my choices. You might find it helpful to sit down and make your own list. Basically, it’s an outline of your philosophy and a good thing to do from time to time, just to take stock of your feelings.
To explore and learn as many new things as I can.
To spend time creating books and music that, hopefully, will touch other peoples lives.
To spend as much time as possible with people who matter to me, rather than with people whose opinions of me don’t matter.
To awake each morning and energetically pursue the new opportunities of that day.
To not be concerned with my status in life or with what others think of me.
To try to be the best person that I can and to mean something to others.
To pass on what others have given me that no one really owns anyway.
To remove guilt from my life and, instead, take appropriate action.
To see any problem as an opportunity to grow in patience, tolerance or acceptance.
To gain wisdom from those more experienced in life and, at the same time, to hold on to youthful ideals.
To learn to use the English language out of respect for all the great minds who have demonstrated that it’s worthwhile to do so.
To be open so that people may know me, trust me and let me know them.