Deciding about Decisions

“Deciding about Decisions,” New Era, June 1976, 11

Deciding about Decisions

Decisions are miserable aren’t they? It seems like every five minutes we’re called upon to make a decision. Every time we turn around we’re given alternatives and choices. We decide what we’re going to do tomorrow and the next day, and what we’re going to do with our lives. Decisions bridge the gap between what we know and what we do.

Have you ever stopped to think about the “big movie in the sky?” What would it be like to have your parents see a movie of everything you do? It’s interesting to parallel our lives with a motion picture, because making a motion picture is really just a matter of selection. While making The Great American Cowboy we exposed 160,000 feet of motion picture film. If you looked at all the film we shot and didn’t use, it would take about 80 hours. The final film is 90 minutes long. That means we discarded 49 feet of film for every foot we used. We call that a shooting ratio of 50 to 1. For every 50 feet of film, we use one.

Life is like that. Most decisions you make have 50 alternatives. From these 50 alternatives you decide upon one, and the one you choose becomes a permanent part of the eternal record of your life.

You have the ability to select; you have the power to choose. That is what our Heavenly Father gave us with the marvelous principle called free agency.

Decisions are not easy. We make at least a million decisions during our lifetime. Because of radio, television, newspapers, magazines, billboards, and all the other communication tools in our environment, we are bombarded by some 1,500 separate messages a day. We can’t use all of them. We have to select the ones we think about, the ones we make a permanent part of the “film” of our lives. We have to choose.

“Hey, chicken!”

When I was a young man I lived in a small community close to the mountains. I was a lifeguard and did lots of swimming. We used to go tubing down rivers and all those crazy things that advisers worry about but guys get excited about. We went swimming at a place called East Canyon, a beautiful man-made reservoir. The dam is in a narrow neck of the canyon between sheer rock walls.

None of us had boats, so we couldn’t water ski, but we would do what we called cliff diving. We’d climb up those rocks and dive into the reservoir. We’d always wear tennis shoes because the rocks were so sharp. We used to have a wonderful time. I guess I didn’t realize how really dangerous it was.

After we’d been there several times and pretty well knew the rocks, cliffs, and the water depth, two or three of us hard-core East Canyon divers got into the inevitable teenage contest of raw courage. One guy climbed up to where we always dove from and yelled down, “Hey! I’ll bet I dare dive higher than anybody here!”

“Ah, go on!”

So he climbed up to the top of the dam. The dam was about 50 feet off the water. Diving into the air he arched into the water, and like a bunch of sheep we crawled up the rocks, out onto the dam, and all of us dove off. I don’t know if you’ve ever jumped 50 feet—it’s a long way. I could only think that, after all, the water was 70 feet deep and couldn’t hurt all that much.

Well, that didn’t satisfy my friend, and so he said, “All right, I’ll do one better!” He climbed 60 feet up the side of the cliff. And not wanting to be outdone, I climbed up by him. After all, everyone was looking at me. I had a great suntan, and I was sure everyone expected me to do what he was doing. He swallowed hard, buried his fear, and from trembling knees arched his back, and floating through 60 feet of air into the water.

I was grateful nobody was watching me as I prepared for my dive. When he’d cleared and seemed to be all right, I took courage, and I made my dive. By now the other members of our diving contest had backed down, figuring it was a little high. But not my friend. He climbed on up to about 70 feet and once more prepared to dive. From below I could barely see him. Seventy feet is a very long way up on the rocks. I said to myself, “I hope he doesn’t do it because if he does it, then obviously I’ve got to do it, and I really don’t want to.” About then I saw a pink body float through the air and splash into the water not far from me. He came up laughing, rubbing his shoulders and his eyes, and said, “Well, Merrill, are you going to do it?”

“Of course, I’m going to do it!” Everybody on the shore said, “Yeah, of course he’s going to do it!”

And so I swam back to the shore and climbed up the rocks. I knew I only had the courage for one more jump. I knew if I jumped at 70 feet, he was going to go higher, so I thought, “Well, I might as well go up to the very top where there is no way he can go higher.”

I scrambled up 80 feet to the very top of the cliff. As I turned around and looked down, I saw that the cliffs were back away from the water at that height. I had two challenges: to fall 80 feet and to get enough clearance to avoid hitting the rocks at the bottom. Everybody was egging me on in a negative way. “You’re chicken, you’re chicken!”

I stood there all alone, everybody waiting down below. The water was so far away it looked like crinkled tinfoil in the sun. I was just terrified. I was committed, but I had not even based my decision on what I wanted to do or what I felt was right. I had based it on about a half dozen guys whose names I don’t even remember who were yelling, “Hey, chicken, are you going to do it?”

I realized that in order to make the jump I would have to run a distance to get enough momentum to carry me over the rocks below. So I backed up and ran as hard as I could toward the edge. I found the mark I had carefully laid at the edge of the rock and sprang out into space. I don’t know how long it takes to fall 80 feet, but for me it took about a week. On the way down I remembered distinctly how my parents and teachers had taught me to be careful when making decisions because I could kill myself with a wrong one. I said to myself, “You have done it; you have killed yourself, because when you hit the water you’ll be going so fast that it might as well be concrete.” And when I hit the water, I was sure it was concrete. I don’t know how far down you go when you jump from 80 feet, but I’ll tell you, I was a grateful lad when my head finally popped above water. I took a quick inventory to make sure that the throbbing pain in my right thigh didn’t designate the loss of anything important.

Who’s in control?

Well, why did I jump? Did I prove myself to the guys? You think they cared? You think they’re sitting at home tonight saying, “Remember old Merrill, brave old Merrill, jumping off the. …” They don’t even remember! They don’t care! But for me that moment was as important as my life. I made what could have easily been a fatal decision. Through the grace of a very patient Heavenly Father I wasn’t killed. I didn’t land on the rocks; I missed by only a few feet. I didn’t drown, and I didn’t have a concussion or a number of other things that could easily have happened because of such a stupid decision.

I was subjected to pressure that was hard to withstand, the pressure of friends expecting things of me that I didn’t want to do because I knew better. But I yielded to the pressure. I was living in the world, and at that moment I was of the world because I was not in control of myself. I was not making decisions about my own life. The world made the decisions for me. I was of the world, and had barely avoided being in the world about six feet deep.

Listening to the right voices

That’s the way decisions are. They are either made by us, or they’re made by the circle of people around us. And there are many voices talking to us when we make decisions. There are the voices of friends, parents, teachers, and others. We should listen to some of the voices. We should reject others because not all voices give good counsel. As you face the challenge of being in but not of the world, recognize that you must make the decisions about your life. Be assured that if the world makes decisions for you, you will be of the world, and there’s no way to avoid it.

When it came time to choose whether or not to go to college, pick a career, and consider all the other great challenges facing high school seniors, I decided to go to the high school counselor. He gave me a test loosely defined as an aptitude test. I had already decided I was a very important person with tremendous potential, because like every LDS child, I’d been taught that since I was little. “You’re a leader, Kieth; you can do the things that you want to do. You have great talent, you have intellect, and you have great capacity.” Loving parents and teachers kept telling me that. I don’t know if they believed it, but I believed it. And by the time I was a senior in high school, I was ready to go out and meet the world.

Then I went to see my counselor about the results of my tests. He sat down, looked at the paper, and said, “How are you, Kieth? Sit down. Well, let’s see, what ah … what are you interested in?”

“Well, I’d like to be a doctor.”

“No, ah … I think you probably ought not to set your sights that high; it would be very disappointing to you. Have you considered a vocation?”

I said, “Well, let me look at the results of the tests,” and he handed me the paper. I think they were in alphabetical order because I only read the first thing on the list, cheese wrapper! Apparently I was very dexterous. That voice didn’t reinforce the things my father and the Church had taught me about my capacity and potential.

And so it is that sometimes the very voices you respect most are the voices giving you the wrong information. Teachers in your schools may be teaching you things that are not true. Counselors may give you incorrect information and bad advice. Friends may encourage you to do things that are wrong. You must stand alone and decide your own destiny. You cannot rely too heavily on these voices.

On the other side, there are positive voices. The voice of a loving parent who understands the gospel. The voice of a teacher who understands the true potential of man. There are friends who believe as you do, hope as you do, and have the ideals you have. Those are positive voices that can help you make decisions.

The five important decisions

You know, I think you can get through life by making about five important decisions. The important decisions of your life, the ones that our Heavenly Father cares about, are really only a few. I’m bold enough to suggest that there are five or six decisions you could make that would help you live in but not be of the world.

You are important

First, decide that you are important. A lot of you have not decided that yet. A lot of you have fears and doubts. You’re unsure, you’re afraid, you’re struggling for your identity, and you want to be accepted. These things can get you into wrong decision-making modes. So decide that you’re important, because once you have a great respect for yourself, you’ll never jump off an 80-foot cliff. You’ll know that you’re more important than a dare.

One of Satan’s prime tools is telling you that you are not great. His prime target is your self-image. If he can convince you that you are not an important person, he’s halfway there. Always remember, our Heavenly Father has said that the worth of souls is great. You are great, each of you in your own way. Have a positive image of yourself, an image that inspires you to improve. If you’re too fat, imagine yourself thinner. If you’re too lazy, imagine yourself more industrious. If you have any of a million problems, don’t accept yourself for what you are. Create an image of yourself as the person you want to become, and one day you’ll be that person if you persist in living up to your image.

You only have to decide once

The second great decision I think you need to make is to decide never to compromise. That’s the most reassuring decision you could make. And you only have to make it once.

Would you like to be spared the agony of 26,645 decisions? Would you like to be spared the agony of 10 times that many? It’s very simple. Decide which decisions you only have to make once and then make them. Shall I give you a good example? The Word of Wisdom. Have you decided to live the Word of Wisdom, or do you decide everytime somebody offers you a cigarette? Do you make a decision everytime someone offers you a drink, or have you already decided? One decision will save you 26,645 decisions. 26,645 decisions is computed based on your being 17 years old today, living to age 90, and having to make the decision whether or not to keep the Word of Wisdom once each day. That’s stupid! Decide right now. You can do that with morality, the Word of Wisdom, temple marriage, a mission, and with a whole list of other important principles of the gospel. Then you don’t have to keep fighting yourself every time a new challenge or opportunity comes up.

I put these important decisions in the general category of don’t compromise. Make a decision now that you will not compromise the standards of this church. And if you can hang on with a no-compromise attitude about those important principles, you’re way ahead.

I made the decision about the Word of Wisdom a long time ago. Before I made that big decision, I was deciding so many different times I was devastated, worn down, and I didn’t always make the right decision. Finally, I decided, “This is ridiculous. I’m going to live the Word of Wisdom.” And then there was no compromise.

For the world premiere showing of The Great American Cowboy, our investors invited about a thousand people to attend. There were only a few members of the Church involved. The obvious question came up, “What will we serve the press? We must have a bar set up for the press in the lobby of the theater to get them excited to write some good stuff. We have got to serve cocktails at this premiere.” I said, “There will be no cocktails at any premiere I have any control over.” And since I had control over it, I said, “No way!”

“Oh now, Kieth, you’ve got to be reasonable. There will be hundreds of people there, and they don’t care whether you’re a Mormon or not.” I said, “I care. There will be no liquor. I mean zero liquor in that entire theater the night of my premiere.”

I’d already made that decision. There was no discussion. The decision had been made years before.

The night of the premiere rolled around; the people came, and they went in. My wife and I went in long enough to realize that people weren’t going to get up and leave, and we were delighted and thrilled. We went out into the lobby to be alone and reflect. As we sat down in the lobby, guess who walked in the door? Elder Marion D. Hanks! I didn’t know where he came from; I didn’t even know he’d been invited. But Marion D. Hanks walked in. If we’d had a bar set up with cocktail glasses all over the place when Marion D. Hanks walked in, it would have been like hitting the rocks after jumping off the cliff.

So don’t compromise! Make your decisions now and only make them once!

Some specific goals

There are three other decisions you should make very quickly. Decide now, young men, to go on a mission. Period. President Kimball has said that except in special circumstances, every young man in this church is to fulfill a mission.

You girls have not been instructed to fill missions except as a call may come. But you have been instructed by the prophet to do nothing to discourage young men from going on a mission. Encourage and support them!

Fourth decision! Decide now to marry in the temple. No alternatives, no choices, make up your mind now. If you make up your mind now to marry in the temple, you’ve just made about 595 decisions that otherwise lay ahead of you—who to date, how serious to get, when to go steady, with whom to go steady, whether or not to get engaged.

Girls, I think you have been given a perfect formula for choosing a young man. If I were you, I would decide now not to marry a young man who has not been on a mission. Believe me, if you girls make up your minds, young men will follow you anywhere. A girl has a tremendous amount of influence over what young men do. My wife picked me up from the bottom of an 80-foot cliff and said, “You idiot, why don’t you do something with your life?”

What’s the last of the five basic decisions you should make this week? Be active in the Church. You will go through periods in your life when you will have a lot of questions. There will be times when you’ll wonder what’s happening. You’ll have doubts, fears, and concerns—but don’t let your activity in the Church fall off. See yourself as an active member of the Church in spite of how you feel at any particular time. In spite of what pressures you may be under, continue to come to Church.

Commit yourself, then persist

Now go to your parents and say, “Mom and Dad, I want to tell you I’ve made five decisions in my life. I want to covenant with you as I’ve covenanted in private with my Heavenly Father to keep these decisions.

“I’ve decided that I’m important. I am a child of God. I’ve decided that I’m going to live accordingly.

“I have decided I will never compromise. When I have to make a decision, I’ll simply say, ‘Is this a compromise?’ And if it is a compromise, I won’t do it.

“I’ve decided that I’ll go on a mission or I am going to marry a boy who’s been on a mission.

“I’ve decided I’m going to get married in the temple of God.

“I’ve decided that regardless of how I feel or who I’m mad at, I’m going to keep going to my meetings.”

You know, I’ll bet your parents won’t ask another decision of you. Because if you do these things, I sincerely believe you will have the Spirit of our Heavenly Father with you, and you will survive the ominous challenge of being in but not of the world.

It’s not going to be easy living up to your five decisions. Unlike jumping off an 80-foot cliff where you have no alternative after you’ve jumped, the decisions I’ve mentioned aren’t that conclusive. Unlike jumping off a cliff, these decisions will constantly come up for re-examination. So you’re going to need to persist. Make your decisions and then persist. Stick to it.

Be determined

When I decided to do a film called The Great American Cowboy, I was sitting in my office, warm and comfortable. I said, “I think I will do a film about rodeo cowboys.” All of a sudden I found myself standing in the bucking chutes. The goal was no longer white, clean, and beautiful. Bucking chutes tend to make your shoes messy. You will find that somewhere between setting and reaching a goal, you’ll end up in the muck and mire of the arena of life. That’s when you have to increase your persistence. Don’t change the goal. Don’t say, “The goal wasn’t good because I have manure on my boots.” Don’t say, “I must not be capable of reaching that goal.” Say, “I’ve got to work harder, try harder, get up earlier, study harder, go to church more, pray harder, follow the principles of the gospel.” Be persistent. Then you will reach those goals and find yourself becoming the person you imagine yourself to be.

Illustrated by Ed Holmes