One of the most common answers LDS’s give to the “purpose of life” question is that this life is a “training”, or a time in which we are “proven” and “tested”. Central to this notion of the purpose of life is the concept of “free agency”. We must be “free to choose” between “good and evil” in order to gain experience for ourselves and grow in this exam, called “life”.
The way we often talk about free agency is in a context where we are “tempted” by “the adversary” to do something wrong or evil. If we resist we become stronger. If we give in, we feel remorse, regret, and hope that next time we will be able to withstand the temptation. This exercise of free agency is predicated on us having an awareness of which option is right and which option is wrong. The focus of free agency tends, then, to be on our “will”, or our strength to endure temptation and choose the right.
What I’d like to challenge here is whether or not this conceptualization of free agency is actually the most relevant to fulfilling the purpose of life.
“Gaining experience”, “growing”, or “being tested”, IMO, is best served when there are multiple “live options”. In other words, many of the most transformative experiences I’ve had have been when I’ve struggled to make a “good” choice not in the context where I recognized “good” from “bad”, but when it seemed that there were multiple “good” choices; or yet, when there seemed to only be “bad” choices. I consider these “live options” in the sense that I faced a difficulty, not in my will, but in deciding from the reality that I could only choose one of many “real” possibilities. This differs from the conception of “free agency” in the sense that free agency lacks “live options”. Indeed, there are only “live options” if something is wrong with me. If my will is weak, then doing wrong is in fact a “real” choice. But even here it is not “real” in a deep sense. I must recognize it to be wrong in order for it to be a choice.
Deep growth, IMO, comes by entertaining multiple “live options”. The process of introspection, weighing alternatives, visualizing the potential outcomes, etc. seems to be central to the process of “training” as far as the purpose of life is concerned. Deep human character seems to come about in people who are truly tormented by options–not in the sense of having a weak will, but in the sense of working through live possibilities that are in fact real. How much time should I spend with my family, versus working at my job? What kind of occupation should I choose? An example of the difference between “free agency” and “deep agency” is the difference in the process for many young LDS men choosing to go on a mission versus young LDS women. For the former it tends to be a sign of weakness to not go, whereas for the latter it tends toward a situation with “real” options. Many of these questions, of course, could be contextualized within the framework of “free agency” and weakness of will; but my sense is that they are better discussed in the framework of deep agency.
Lastly, this is not to suggest that we do not have the resources for addressing this issue–”thinking it out in your mind” is certainly one of those resources. However, it seems, at least to me, that these kinds of resources are far less developed than those focusing on the issue of free agency. I think I’ll stop here before this gets too long.