The title of this post is a Spanish proverb I encountered in a really good book I just finished reading, a literary mystery/thriller by Irish writer Tana French called The Likeness. (LDS Reader alert: It’s an excellent novel—both suspenseful and gorgeously written—and there’s no sex and surprisingly little violence, considering it’s a thriller. But many of the main characters are Irish cops, so there’s swearing.)
But this post isn’t about the novel, or Irish cursing. It’s about the quote and how it got me pondering the principle of agency and the way it operates in my life. It’s about answering these two questions: What do I want? And am I willing to pay for it?
Mormons have strong feelings about agency. We believe we exercised it before we were born—that we fought a pre-mortal war in order to preserve it—and that agency is essential to the plan of salvation. I, for one, have understood from the time I was a little kid in Primary that I was “free to choose,” and my options seemed clear: liberty and eternal life on the one hand, captivity and death on the other. Reading my scriptures? Eternal life. Cheating on my math test? Death. As I got older the choices got trickier and were sometimes counterintuitive. Weeding the Stake Center flower beds? Liberty. Dragging State Street with the shaggy-haired skateboarder I met at the 49th Street Galleria? Captivity. Sigh. Yes, sometimes it was hard to “choose the right,” but I was pretty certain I had the system figured out. After all, I’d seen the “Free to Choose” filmstrips throughout four whole years of seminary. (How many of you 80s teens are singing the theme song right now: “I’m free to choose / to win or lose / no matter who / tries and comes to turn my head around”?).
Back in those days the term “free agency” was in vogue among Mormons, but lately it’s been replaced by either “moral agency” or just plain “agency,” mainly because the adjective “free” can be confusing. While we are free to choose whatever we want, the consequences of those choices aren’t free. But the black vs. white, good vs. evil approach to agency remains a popular way to frame our discussion of the principle: that throughout our lives, we’ll be confronted with good choices and evil choices, right choices and wrong choices, and our job is to discern the good from the evil and proceed accordingly.
While this approach was quite helpful during my teenage years, as an adult I rarely find myself confronted with such clearly delineated options. For the first twenty years or so of my life, the test questions were True or False, with the occasional multiple choice thrown in for good measure. But lately? Lately I feel the Testing Center of Existence has raised the stakes, and the rest of my (eternal) life will be lived in essay-question format.
Over and over again, I find myself confronted with essay-question-style problems: Should you pull your children out of piano lessons? Please examine both pro and con. Is it wrong to put your toddler in the child care center at the gym? Explain. Does taking a part-time job infringe unduly on your family time, or are the financial and personal benefits worth the cost? Give detailed examples. Questions like these are just skimming the surface of the types of choices that confront us every day, and each of us will be required to grapple with much bigger questions over the course of our mortal existence—questions with no easy answers.
And isn’t that the point?
I wonder, though, how willing we are to really exercise our agency. Give it a good work out. “Take what we want.” We’re bombarded with images, messages, opinions about what we should want, but how many of us are willing to get to know ourselves well enough, and to develop the ability to listen to the spirit closely enough, to truly discern the root of our desires and then act? Take, for example, one hot-button issue in Mormon life: family size. What of the Mormon family that is content with two children and feels that three might push them to the breaking point? Even if the spirit is whispering to the couple “it’s okay to be done,” is it too hard to make that choice in the face of cultural disapproval? Or what of the family with six children, the family that’s already dealt with the raised eyebrows when the sixth pregnancy was announced? What if they truly desire a seventh, but it’s too hard to make that choice in the face of cultural disapproval? In our culture, four is nice, round number. I have four kids. I know. I’m also under no illusions that my decision to have four kids was probably subtly influenced by forces outside myself.
The truth is, conscious, self-directed choosing is hard, and it can even be dangerous. That’s where the second part of the proverb comes into play: you’ve gotta pay for your choices, says God. We pay for all our choices, really, even the obviously “good” ones. Choose to get an education? Gotta work. Choose to get married? Gotta compromise. Choose to become a parent? Oh, gotta, gotta, gotta. But within the construct of my LDS American cultural milieu, in those choices I’m spared one particular type of payment—that of judgment, disapproval, ridicule, scorn. It’s the gray-area choices that can be the most paralyzing because, while it is “not meet” that we be commanded in all things, being commanded certainly makes things easier. When God says, “I don’t know, my dear, what do you think?”, acting on our inclinations means we risk making mistakes, or fools or ourselves, or enemies.
But we fought a war in heaven so we could make these hard choices and have cast our lot with those who’ll be eternally discerning and eternally deciding. God expects us to gird up our loins, fresh courage take, and ACT. As Lehi tells us in 2 Nephi 2:24, we’ve been redeemed from the fall so we can be free forever, to act for ourselves and not be acted upon. So now that the stark temptations of adolescence are behind me, how do I approach opportunities for choice in my life, and how do I react to the consequences of those choices?
I’ve come to the conclusion that one way I “pay for” my more difficult or controversial choices is enduring the judgment that comes hand-in-hand with making them. Instead of demanding that other people stop judging me, see it my way, come around to my side, well, you know what? I just need to realize this is part of the payment plan and suck it up. Know my mind and my heart, study things out, pray, then ACT . . . and be willing to take the consequences, even the consequence of scorn. Because consequences will come, no matter what I choose. Choosing not to choose, in fact, doesn’t spare me from payment either. It just keeps me from progressing.
So better to take what I want. And pay for it. And grow.
Have you been exercising your agency lately? How have you paid for your choices? How do cultural expectations or fear of judgment affect your ability to make decisions? Why is agency so central to our eternal progression?