I recently had a deep and rather philosophical conversation with a client concerning how much we can truly exercise free will in our lives. Him, going through a difficult period in his life, preferred to believe that we have limited free will and most things that happen to us were predetermined in some shape or form. I, on the other hand, talked about our species being the only one with an ability to exercise any free will at all. I guess no-one truly knows if we have true free will or how much our subconscious plays a role. I do know that any choice we make, consciously or not, carries a consequence that we can either enjoy or have to deal with. It is how we deal with these consequences or indeed, if we are willing to face them, that determines how we navigate our way through life.
Like my client, it is sometimes easier to believe that some outside element or someone else is responsible for all that happens to us. However, a vast majority of what happens to us is squarely usually down to us and what we decided to do. Remembering here, of course, that doing nothing is also a choice. Much of the time, we believe, unrealistically that life should be much easier than it actually is. So we avoid, say we can’t (which means won’t), procrastinate, blame others, the world, conditioning, anything except our part in it. This is much easier to do than to face something that might need effort and work.
We have more free will than we think, especially when it comes to making decisions about choices and consequences. Many of us fail to recognise that any choice we make will usually bring a balance of consequences, good and bad. For example, committing to a new relationship, may well bring a functional situation but might mean changing some things about ourselves and attitude. Going for a new job, might bring more income and job satisfaction but might bring more challenge. The less than positive aspects are the ones that we try to avoid so we often stay stuck in situations that are familiar to us. Scott Peck rightly says in his famous book “the Road Less Travelled” that the key to learning to deal constructively with our problems lies in a system of discipline comprised of four tools.
1. Delaying gratification: Scheduling the pain and pleasures of life so as to enhance the pleasure by meeting and experiencing the pain first and getting it done.
2. Acceptance of responsibility. Being proactive and dealing with issues before circumstances take a hand.
3. Dedication to truth. Being honest with ourselves about how the situation arose and what our part in it was.
4. Balance. Thinking about the future but still enjoying the present.
Not taking responsibility for what we can influence and not making definite choices about ourselves usually means we would rather moan and complain and put our destiny in the hands of others. When we avoid our own responsibility, we are really saying to others…”you need to tell me what to do…to look after me” Erich Fromm stated quite rightly in his book on Nazism that we spend our lives “escaping from freedom”. The freedom that personal responsibility brings.
Of course, we are not always taught how to work with such concepts described above. Not many parents have the time to give their children the security they need to take responsibility for themselves and all that means. Many parents are overwhelmed and put across the very concepts that foster the above. No parent is perfect but we all need to look at how we deal with our children on a daily basis, the way we talk to them, treat them, set boundaries for them and positively discipline them. Parents who fight in front of their children, dismiss and neglect wishes, use punitive punishment or threaten will achieve only the situation that children take it on themselves as something “wrong” with them. This is in no way prepares them for a functional adult existence.
What we need is self-discipline, to take responsibility and to face problems head-on and not delay the pain that goes along with it. These concepts are learnt early in our lives. In fact, many say they are inherent in us but are gone by the time we reach teenage years due to the environment we grow up in. Discipline will beat procrastination and “passing the buck”. It will teach us to take responsibility for the things we can influence and it will teach us that delaying the pain and replacing it with something “nice” or “pleasurable” is only pushing things further down the line to a point where we will need to face it due to circumstance and not choice.
Choice is the key word here. All of the dysfunctional concepts described above are done by choice and we can make different choices. Choose to take responsibility, face that difficult task, solve the question of staying or going and choose to deal with conflict efficiently. Choice is about discipline and doing nothing is also a choice. Life is purely a set of problems to face, endure and ultimately solve. Once we choose to solve them, life can be much better.