Hal Urban

Hal Urban: Personal Choice, Not Chance, Determines How We Live

“We are the fruit of our own choices. The freedom to decide, the power to choose – what an extremely important life lesson this is!”

Our greatest freedom, our most inexhaustible source of strength

God does not ask anyone whether he will accept the life he breathes into him. There is no room for personal choice in this case. You have to accept life. It is up to you how you live it.” ~ Henry Ward Beecher

What is this freedom of ours, this inexhaustible source of strength of ours? It is our ability to choose. I was already in college when I began to gradually realize that this very ability of ours is the key to life. Something happened in our class that made me look at life differently. I attended the Jesuit College at the University of San Francisco, where students were required to take a philosophy course and exam each semester. The Jesuits – an order of learned Catholic priests – are very strong in philosophy. They told us they wanted to teach us to think before we entered the world. And they had tackled this task head on. Every day we were challenged to think about God, life, the world and man’s place in it. We were asked to write essays about the meaning of life and human existence. We debated the issues of good and evil, sin and righteousness. Tough material, but great preparation for life. We were studying to understand life better, to accept it as it is, and to deal with it more effectively. And yes, indeed, we were learning how to think.

On the day that changed my outlook on life, we were having a debate about the existence of God. At one point, one of my fellow students challenged the professor with a question I had heard countless times: “If God is so good and all-powerful, how does he allow all this suffering in people? Why didn’t he make us healthy and happy throughout our lives?” The teacher seemed to be expecting this question. I’ll never forget his answer: “If God had made us like that, we’d all be nothing more than puppets on strings.” He would be pulling our strings and we would have absolutely no autonomy and power over our destinies. Yes, indeed, we would not have to go through pain and painful experiences. But without them we would also never know the true triumphs and joys of life. There would be no reason for us to seek and discover meaning and purpose of our existence in this world. We would be mindless, programmed robots. God has made something much better. He created us with free will. He gave us life, and then he also gave us the freedom to decide for ourselves how to live it and what to do with it. He has given us the power to choose our own path.”

The freedom to decide, the power to choose – what an extremely important life lesson that was! And what a pity that so many people in the world never realize their incredible freedom, nor use their enormous power. I admit that even after learning this invaluable lesson in college, I myself have neglected it more than once. Unfortunately, we don’t always apply the lessons we’ve been taught. I remember how, just a few years ago, when my life seemed completely off the rails, I blamed it on circumstances, my bad luck, various people. Then I came across the words of Henry Ward Beecher that I quoted at the beginning of this article, and they reminded me that I was born with a free role. It was not bad circumstances, not bad luck, not bad people that caused me to feel unhappy. The reason was my bad personal choice in one situation or another. I had no control over events, but I did have the freedom and power to choose how to react to them. When I took responsibility for exercising this freedom of choice, my life became far more fulfilling.

Discovering Choices

Did you know that there are only a few differences between human beings and animals? Whether you’re watching your pet dog, an elephant at the zoo, or a mountain goat, you’ll see that they’re actually doing the same thing. Animals eat, sleep, seek shelter and reproduce. All these actions are the result of instincts. Animals’ existence is guided entirely by their instincts. Their only goal in life is to survive. They react to the world around them, and the environment they live in determines their behavior. That is why they can be easily trained.

So how do we differ from them? We have the same body parts and body functions. We are subject to the same primal needs and survival instincts. Like animals, we react to what is happening in the world around us and allow ourselves to be influenced by our environment. And whether we like to admit it or not, we too can easily be trained. The only difference between human beings and animals is that we don’t have to live this way. Because we humans have something else besides instincts: the ability to choose. This is what distinguishes human beings from animals. And if we do not use this ability of ours, the differences between us melt away almost completely. Because then we do nothing but to survive. Instead of living, we just exist.

The starting point to a happier and more fulfilling life is realizing that we have choices. The sad thing is that many never get it. And since we are talking about America, Americans live in a country that offers more freedom of choice than any other in the world, but they are like prisoners chained by circumstances. It always amazes me the excuses people make for not taking advantage of the new choices life presents: I don’t have enough money, I don’t have time, the circumstances aren’t right, I’m unlucky, the weather is bad, I’m too tired, I’m not in the mood and all sorts of nonsense. However, the truth is that they simply do not see their opportunities. It’s like being locked up somewhere and having a key in your pocket that you can use to free yourself, but never using it simply because you don’t know it’s there. Realize that you have far more choices than you can ever imagine. The key is to realize that they exist – every day and every moment of your life. Personal choice, not chance, determines how we live. The most important thing is not what happens to us, but how we deal with what has happened to us. The most important thing is our personal choice – how to perceive and how to act in relation to one or another thing in our life.

Life is a series of opportunities for personal choice

One possible view of life is to see it as a daily series of opportunities for personal choice. In fact, it is the healthiest and most invigorating mindset with which to begin each day in this world. From the moment we wake up in the morning to the moment we go to sleep at night, we are constantly making one choice or another. And if we don’t do it ourselves, then someone else or something else does it for us.

One of the most fatal mistakes people make is thinking that life is one big “should.” They have to go to work, they have to go to school, they have to go shopping, they have to get their hair cut, they have to get organized for one thing or another, they have to do a million different things. But the truth is that we don’t have to do anything. Some things are important and really good to be done, but none of us are obligated to do them.

I’m always amazed at how strongly people object to me when I tell them that they do everything by their own choice. They are so firmly entrenched in the “should” philosophy of life that it is extremely difficult for them to let go of it. I recently taught this concept to a group of high school seniors in their optional psychology course. I gave them the following example: “This morning it was your personal choice to come to school.” And I was willing to bet my monthly salary on what the first answer would be. I turned out to be right, of course. One of my most alert students immediately objected: “It wasn’t a personal choice! I had to come to school.” “No, no one forced you to. You chose to come.” As I expected, the boy proceeded to tell me all the horrible things that would happen to him if he didn’t go to school: his teacher would call his parents, they would scold him, he’ll probably get punished, his success will go down, and so on. When he finished, I said to him, “That’s right. And you made your choice. You chose to come to school instead of suffering all these consequences if you hadn’t come. But in any case, you had the freedom to make that choice. Some of your classmates are absent. For one reason or another, they chose not to come to school today. Someone probably chose to sleep longer, another decided to give himself a whole day of vacation, another preferred to get stuck in the pastry shop. While it’s your personal choice to be in class.”

With his next words, the boy helped me get to the heart of this life lesson: “But it’s the same thing, just looked at from a different angle!” “Thanks! – I answered solemnly. – This is exactly what I want you to learn: to perceive every day of your life in exactly this way.”


Positive Words, Powerful Results – Hal Urban, 2004