I was raised in a Christian religion which taught me that human beings have the gift of free will or “agency” from God. I was never really explained how this was gifted to us, but I understood it to mean that God had chosen not to force his will on us, which apparently he could do if he wanted.
As I grew up, I learned more about the myriad factors that influence human behavior, including genetic predispositions, socialization, biological drives (like the need for food, sex, and security), psychological needs (like the need for esteem, love, and meaning), social influences (like peers and the media), etc.
When observing other people from the outside, it’s easy to ascribe their behaviors to one or more of these determinants. This is even easier when we consider people en masse, rather than as individuals. But when we think about ourselves, we tend to ascribe more of our behavior to choice. This is because freedom of choice is an internal experience. Our experience of freedom conflicts with what we know about the determinants of human behavior.
The question is whether our experience of freedom is an illusion. Are we actually free or do we just think we are?
As I have gotten older, I have come to recognize that more and more of my behavior is attributable to things like my biology (whether I am hungry or not is a huge factor) or how my view of the world has been shaped by some of the screwed up things I learned from my parents or from society. Eventually, I started to wonder if there really is anything like free will.
But I’m convinced that there is. I believe that free will exists, but I don’t think it’s what most of us think it is.
I don’t think we are exercising free will when we chose what breakfast cereal to eat or what kind of car to drive or what to wear in the morning. I don’t think we are exercising free will when we select a career or a life partner. I think most of the time, we “choose” what we choose because we are presented with a limited range of options and our “choice” is pretty much determined by nature and nurture.
But I have had a few moments in my life, very difficult moments, when I felt like there was freedom. In those moments, I felt like I was being carried away by a river and suddenly my feet touched the riverbed and found some purchase. And then with difficulty, I managed to dig my feet in, stop moving, and for a brief time, to resist the flow of the river. Sometimes, I even managed to turn around and walk a little ways upstream.
In those moments, I felt like every cell in my body and soul was pulling me in one direction, downstream … but something, something small inside me, started to open up and create space for a different possibility.
I have come to believe that my only really free moments were those times when I resisted the inertia of life and held still long enough for something new to happen. In those moments, I have felt real choice. It wasn’t even the choice between two possibilities. It was just the choice to allow a space to open up for a different possibility. Maybe I would choose that other possibility, or maybe I wouldn’t. But the freedom existed in holding still and letting the new thing grow for a little while inside me.
They were kind of “red pill-blue pill” moments, not really a choice between two certainties, but a choice between a known future, which determined by the past, and an unknown future.
I felt this recently when I experienced something that felt like a personal betrayal. Everything seemed to pull me in one direction, a reaction based on anger and fear and hurt.
But there was something else. It was both a feeling and a thought–that there might be another way, that this hurt might actually lead to deeper and stronger connection and joy. I felt a tug of war between these two impulses, so different in character. The pull of anger and fear felt hot and strong and loud. The other thing felt tender and precarious and indeterminate. The first pulled me to act. The other invited me to hold still.
I chose to hold still. At least for a little whole.
I think that moment, and a few others like it in my life, have been the only times that I have really experienced true freedom.
(Have you had a similar experience? How do you experience freedom? Share in the comments.)
I think we are at one of those points collectively now. I think, as a society, everything has been pulling us in one direction, in the direction of alienation from nature, from each other, and even from ourselves. And I feel like there is a space opening up now for something different. So many of our old ways are failing us now. And in this failure is an invitation, an invitation to a new way.
It’s not at all clear what this other way might look like. Lots of people have ideas about it, but it doesn’t seem possible to live it yet. I think we have to make the space to let this new possibility develop, before we rush off again in one direction or the other. This is hard because everything is screaming at us that we need to do something, that we need to act, and act now. But I wonder if what we really need right now is to hold still for a collective minute and see what new ways might be born out of the stillness.