Free Will – What Is It, How Does It Work?

Free will has challenged human beings since the beginning of time. In fact, mystics say that we used free will to create the illusion of time in the first place. What is free will? How does it work? These are two questions vital to the welfare of humankind in an age when power expressed as force is running amok around the globe destroying much of life. Is such violent disregard for life an exercise of our individual and collective free will?

To keep it simple, let’s consider “free will” to be one of the features of humans that distinguishes us from other life forms. A sign of this distinction is that we function with a consciousness of time. No other life form has perfected the art of “telling time” as we have. Agates, asteroids, asters, apples, anthrax, amoebas, anemones, anacondas, aardvarks, antelopes and apes do not schedule their lives by the clock even though some do order their activities based on the effect of the sun as the earth rotates. They live in relationship to such conditions naturally without concern for predicting them or controlling them. They’ve found no need or ability to invent sun dials and other handier timepieces until they arrive at a precision pegged on the periodic motion of atoms. We have chosen to do so as no mineral, plant or animal has. Our power to make such choices and carry them out can be called “free will.”

Free will is a power. We sometimes call it “willpower.” We can choose intentionally to fix our wills upon a goal with such determination and discipline that it appears we’ve lost our freedom to choose otherwise. Yet, the truth is that we remain free to choose to focus our determination and capacity for discipline differently if we conclude that the first exercise of our focus and capacity is not achieving the goal we seek and decide to take another approach. “Deciding” is an aspect of our free will. All we need to do to “free” it again is to realize what we’ve focused it on one goal and can nevertheless, despite every argument to the contrary, change our focus if we want to.

Yes, if we “want” to. The exercise of our free will is heavily influenced if not totally dictated by what we “want” to happen or “want” to be true. That’s why it’s important to be aware of what we truly are “wanting” in order to be truly free to exercise our will. Most of us do not remain fully or even partially aware of what we “want” and allow our buried desires to take control of our wills and establish our life’s direction and destiny – even our demise. Beneath the destructive forces now at work around the globe is a desire to do or die. We are choosing death over life, more freely than we realize. We may have become unaware of the origin of our choice to “do or die” but we’ve made it. It remains there for us to choose differently if we want to choose differently. Do you “want” to choose to violate the norms of our violence-prone society and create for yourself and others who choose with you a society based on peace and love instead? You can if you truly want to.

Our “wanting” is the same as our “heart’s desires.” What are your heart’s desires? If what’s happening in your life is not in line with your deepest heart’s desires, why not? What other desires or “wants” have taken over your will to make it seem less than free? Why might you have unwittingly joined in the collective decision to “do or die” instead of to “do and live?” Why might you be willing to throw out the baby of life with the bathwater in order to achieve a death that vindicates your belief, opinion or perspective about anything? About what topic would you prefer to die instead of admit you might be mistaken and could, if you wanted to, change your mind?

I’ve asked key questions. Now, I want (yes, want and as an exercise of my free will) to share with you a perspective that has helped me decide to participate in the peace-and-love-prone alternative to a violence-and-hate-prone society. What I learned that helped me to change my mind arises from our understanding of the process of grieving. I learned that many of our decisions are influenced by our emotions and that we think we “want” what we’re in the mood for. I learned by experience that it’s not always wise and healthy to opt for what I’m in the mood for. Moods offer poor guidance for free will.

Grief is a process. The process of grief takes us stage by stage from the pain of being hurt in some manner to the release of that pain and a life beyond that pain. How these stages may progress in your life may differ from the pattern in my life. But, let’s consider how universal it is that grief begins with anger and resolves itself in peace if we allow all of our stages of grieving to function fully. The grieving process starts with the emotion of anger and winds up at the emotion of peace if we let it arrive there and don’t insist on remaining angry or sad (depressed) along the way. Our heart’s desires are influenced by the emotional state we are in. I suggest that being in an early stage of grief allows anger to dominate our “wants” and our wills and sets the stage for revenge-stoked violence to be our choice. That’s why I have learned the wisdom of not making important choices when I am in a HALT mode: Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired. When in these mood-modes, it’s wise to wait and allow the mood to pass before exercising my will. Otherwise my will is not as “free” as I would want it to be. (Yes, I do “want” to learn to exercise “free” will, not some form of imprisoned or compromised will.)

I invite you to observe reports of violence for a while and to notice how many acts of violence occur under the influence of anger and/or fear. How many occur while the person who acts violently is still heavily influenced by the motive of revenge? Anger is an emotion that barely hints at the level of pain that a person is carrying around inside from encounters with pain from the past. Unhealed emotional pain is the same as unresolved grief. The “desire” to have revenge or “settle the score” is a symptom of unhealed, internalized pain, even when it may be called “justice.” As the saying goes, “an eye for an eye makes us all blind.” We are in grave danger of being blinded by the violence awash in the world and unable to see our way clear of it. But there is an alternative to blind rage and anger-clouded vision. We can see our way clear if we’ll take the time to grieve, resolve the painful issues of our past and present lives and then move forward together in peace. We can build lasting peace, not merely intermittent truces, through such patient processing of our collective and individual griefs.

Are you willing to step back from the frenetic pace of your life and grieve sufficiently so that your heart’s burdens of pain are resolved and you rise up with fresh energy to help build peace on earth among all peoples of good will? Good will is free will. All human beings are good people at heart. In the depth of our hearts we can find the common ground upon which to build lasting peace. We can find by faith that this common ground is there because the Creator of us all put it there. But to see and stand together upon such holy common ground we must be willing to be determined to acquire, honor and relentlessly use the habits of grieving needed to keep our visions clear and our minds focused on peace instead of focused on justifying anger.

We can “do” peace and live together in it. We need not allow hidden griefs and motives of revenge to dominate and imprison our hearts and minds – or our wills – as if we have no other choice. We do have another choice, a healthier and more promising one. I hope what I’ve written here helps us to see it and to make it. We can choose unifying humility in preference to divisive pride and shame. We need not proudly fight to our deaths over things that matter little in comparison to love’s simpler, more highly valued features and benefits over which no one needs to fight because they are universally available for free. We need not shame, blame or guilt-trip ourselves or others for our decisions or theirs. We can seek to understand by compassion’s perspective “There but by the grace of God go I.”

Many people who advocate on behalf of violence as a solution to human conflicts and confrontations (including to protect innocent defenseless people or in self-defense) have endured trauma in their past, sometimes trauma too severe to imagine if one has not been exposed to it personally. What I write here in no way denies or minimizes the pain that traumatized people have endured or continue to carry as ongoing suffering. I know that I’ve been fortunate to experience only moderate levels of emotional pain. I do not know by personal experience the fuller intensity of pain and suffering. Yet, I continue to advocate on behalf of grieving as the way to heal even the most severe pain and to relieve suffering that otherwise occurs when ungrieved emotional pain is allowed to take root unaddressed, often unnoticed as an underlying theme so prevalent as to be taken for granted as one of life’s unavoidable and permanent conditions.

Ungrieved pain is generating havoc around the world, nearby in our own homes and neighborhoods and far away in the homes and neighborhoods of other members of the human race. My heart’s desire is to help stop this havoc and chaotic, misplaced reliance on inflicting more pain as a response to pain. It’s time to see through the clouds of pain and dust storms of suffering that anyone who acts out violently, even with the full sanction of his or her social institutions, is acting out of unresolved pain. Our social institutions that rely upon punishment to control other people’s actions or impose guilt and shame as a “consequence” of violating those institutions’ rules, roles and rituals are contributing to the overarching pattern of violence that threatens to end the human race. While it is true that we must not deny or minimize pain, we must also not justify inflicting it is as if it is an essential part of the solution. It is a symptom of the problem of emotional unhealthiness we must all address more effectively together. Inflicting more pain and suffering in response to existing pain and suffering is totally counterproductive.

It is my intention to encourage us all to address this unhealthy condition in societies around the world by promoting the mastery of the grief-relief process in place of the grief-infliction process. Too many of our rules, roles and rituals perpetuate grief and pass it along generation to generation, person to person, group to group and humanity to our ecosystem (animals, plants and minerals). Let’s us experiment together instead with the process of relief and see the miracles that peace beyond anger and depression will bring.

Longer explanations of free will have been written by many superb thinkers. If you want to read examples of such works, check out Rollo May’s books entitled Love and Will and Freedom and Destiny. You’ll find great value in focusing your mind on these books and others like them. To do so would be an exercise of your own free will in a nonviolent way. My shorter discussion of free will is not alone sufficient to bring it all home to your heart. If it gets the ball rolling, please keep this ball of healing energy flowing freely within your life as you cultivate your own motivation for learning more about the process of relief called “grieving.” There is no more promising way to exercise your free will than to learn that it’s simply not true that “Big boys don’t cry” or that tears are a sign of weakness. Emotionally unhealthy boys, girls, men and women don’t cry. Ones with tender hearts, reasoning minds and good wills do. Please don’t be ashamed to be one of us.

© Art Nicol 2015

 

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