Monday, March 5, 2007

Choices verses Circumstances

Monday, March 5, 2007, Observation:

Last week I had the opportunity of visiting with my 40-year-old nephew, John Michael Stuart.  John was born with cerebral palsy which affected his motor skills but not his mind.  He is bright beyond bright, has read widely and deeply, is currently writing a book, has a master's degree in social work, teaches the temple preparation class in his ward, and serves as executive secretary in the bishopric.  John's life has not been easy but he is a great example to me of one who has not let his circumstances in life, limit or control his behavior in a negative manner.

One of the burdens John has had to bear throughout his life is that those who don't know him, at times mistakenly believe that not only is he physically impaired but mentally handicapped as well.  One can only imagine the anguish this has caused John.  As we were visiting the other day he told me of an experience he recently had at a little post office in the mountains where he and his family were staying.  He needed to mail a letter but because of his lack of motor skills was unable to address it.  He got in line and when it was his turn he asked the postmistress if she would please address his letter for him.  In an angry voice she told him no. She said she didn't have the time or the desire to do so and why would he ask her to do this in the first place.  John tried to explain his predicament but she simply refused to listen or respond in a kind manner to him.  In the midst of his frustration a lady standing behind him tapped him on the shoulder and told him that she would be happy to address his letter for him.  John gave her the address, she wrote it on the envelope, and the letter was mailed.

John was incensed, burning up with anger, boiling inside, because of the way the postmistress had treated him.  When he saw his family again, in telling them what had happened, he started railing on the postmistress, how horrible she was, and how she had offended, and mistreated him.  A family member after listening for a minute wisely said, "But John, what of the lady who was kind enough to help you?"  John said those words were a real wake-up call to him.  He was embarrassed that he had focused his attention and anger on the offense, without once thinking of the kindness of the woman who had helped him.  John's reaction to his negative experience was not unlike the reaction many of us have had as we have been offended or "put upon unjustly" by someone or something at some time in our lives.

Several thoughts have been churning in my mind as I have contemplated John's experience.  One thought is that mortal life could well be described as "Choices versus Circumstances".  We all are subject to circumstances and situations of an infinite variety; being offended and mistreated is just one example.  However, because of the priceless gift of agency we are free to choose how we are going to react to any given circumstance with which we are faced.  One might say, "Why do there have to be people like the obnoxious postmistress?"  The answer to this question and all of the others regarding the difficult things that can happen to any one of us is simply that it is part of our mortal experience and testing.  It is not the circumstances that matter but how we react to them, using our freedom to choose. 

At times we may think that life is unfair, but it really isn't; it is just life!  Some circumstances we bring upon ourselves because of certain choices we make.  Other circumstances come to us unexpectedly and without our wanting them, simply because we are living in a world governed by natural law.  Our bodies are created in such a manner that as we grow old they begin to wear down and wear out.  Because of our mortal bodies and because we live in a world governed by natural law we are subject to a vast array of physical afflictions, potential accidents, and other challenges that can unexpectedly come into any of our lives.  Very few of us are faced with the same circumstances in life, but we all have the precious gift of agency that gives us the freedom to react to our own peculiar and customized circumstances anyway we choose.  There is never any justification to look at the heavens and shout "Life is so unfair!"

My life has taught me that perhaps the best choice we can always make under any given set of circumstances is to be grateful for all the good things we have, show kindness to others and be forgiving of offenses that may come our way.  To be filled with anger, to feel that we have been "picked on", or to be unwilling to "let it go", is to be miserable ourselves and to make those about us miserable as well.

During the 1880s a French writer by the name of Guy de Maupassant, created some 300 short stories that were widely read during his day and beyond.  One of his most famous was entitled "The Piece of String". The story is about a peasant named Hauchecome who came on market day to the village. While walking through the public square, his eye caught sight of a piece of string lying on the cobblestones. He picked it up and put it in his pocket. His actions were observed by the village harness maker with whom he had previously had a dispute.

Later in the day the loss of a purse was reported. Hauchecome was arrested on the accusation of the harness maker. He was taken before the mayor, to whom he protested his innocence, showing the piece of string that he had picked up. But he was not believed and laughed at. The next day the purse was found, and Hauchecome was absolved of any wrongdoing. But, resentful of the indignity he had suffered because of a false accusation he became embittered and would not let the matter die. Unwilling to forgive and forget, he thought and talked of little else. He neglected his farm. Everywhere he went, everyone he met had to be told of the injustice. By day and by night he brooded over it. Obsessed with his grievance, he became desperately ill and died. In the delirium of his death struggles, he repeatedly murmured, “A piece of string, a piece of string.”

 Sadly, the experience of this peasant farmer and its tragic ending is mirrored in the lives of far too many of us.  I am glad that my nephew John was able to use his agency to focus on the kindness of the lady that helped him, rather than harbor in his heart feelings of anger and resentment.  He was blessed because of it. Many circumstances we cannot control or change, but we can always choose how we react to them because of the priceless gift of agency. Choices and circumstances will continue to be the common lot of each one of us.  Hopefully we will never forget that: "... men are free according to the flesh... to choose..." [2 Nephi 2:27]


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