It’s easier not to ask yourself who you are or what you want. Why bother? Right? Why think about it when nothing can really change? We’re not in charge, right? Or are we?
Things just keep happening. We keep getting up in the morning. We keep putting gas in the car. We keep our commitments. There are goals to meet and bills to pay. That’s the point – to keep going. But for a lot of us, that moment comes when you’re just not sure why you do any of it anymore.
Who’s Idea Is “Alla This” Anyway?
In Ani Difranco’s song, Alla This, there’s a line that has haunted me during those kinds of moments:
“Alla this was just someone’s idea. It could just as well be mine.”
– Ani DiFranco, Alla This
This phrase haunted me because I knew deep down that I had power, but I lost contact with the controls. I forgot how to exercise my power. So it’s no surprise that during the worst years of my bout with anxiety and an eating disorder, I didn’t listen to Ani much.
But then I came across an idea in the book You Are Not Your Brain by Dr. Jefrey M. Schwartz. He talked about something called “Free Won’t.” (He capitalizes it, so I will too.)
Free Will? Whose Will?
I find the idea of “Free Won’t” a lot more practical and motivating than free will. We’ve all thought about it at some point. Are we free to act of our own will? Or are we pushed forward by some irresistible force like a god or DNA or the Matrix?
In some systems of thought, both things can be true at the same time. And that’s fine for a philosopher. But what does it mean for every day life?
And it doesn’t help that the definition of free will gets fuzzy when the rubber meets the road. It can be hard to discern between our own motivations and the motivations of parents, friends, significant others, professors and bosses.
So Dr. Schwartz gave me a new way of looking at all of it. He challenged how I thought about what I can choose and what I can’t:
“Free Won’t turns out to be of the utmost importance because it tells us that we have, in essence, the power to veto almost any action, even though the desire to perform that action is generated by brain mechanisms entirely outside of our conscious attention and awareness. How might that Free Won’t express itself? Through Veto Power.”
– Jeffrey M. Schwartz, M.D., You Are Not Your Brain
Recovering Our Veto Power
The Free Won’t idea reminded me of a time long before life shook me down: college. I understood my own veto power back then. And I wasn’t afraid to embrace it.
It’s story time!
I went to college in San Diego, California back in the nineties. For some reason, I decided to rush a sorority. The name of it started with Alpha, so I’ll just call it that. The Alpha sisters were friendly and fun. They seemed driven and smart. As an only child, I liked the idea of being a part of something that meant I’d be called “sister.” So I became a pledge.
Since my school was a religious institution, pledge week wasn’t as weird as I thought it should be. I thought it all seemed a little dumb. As the week drew to a close and I’d worn all of the strange outfits and TP’d a few professors’ cars, I was disappointed. I thought it was supposed to be daring and exciting. I’d heard that the fraternities did some really crazy stuff and I was a little jealous. I wanted the ladies to step it up.
So on the last night, I was excited when my dorm room door was flung open and two masked sisters charged in and put a pillowcase over my head. This was more like it! We’d heard rumors that we would be brought to a nearby pier to do some weird thing or another. And that’s where we ended up.
When we got to the beach, the first order of business was to run into the water and fully immerse ourselves while yelling some Alpha chant. That was fun – a little cold, but I swam in the ocean all the time. Then they led us to the pier. As we walked up the steps, I noticed some of the girls were visibly upset. Apparently I hadn’t gotten the memo.
That’s a Firm No
Then the sisters told all of us to go to the end of the pier, facing the water, and step up onto the small step just beneath the railing. They told us to lean over the pier as far as we could. It was definitely a frightening experience since I have a serious fear of heights. But I knew that enough of me was on the other side of the railing, I wouldn’t fall in. At this point they walked behind us yelling about loyalty and how we were going to place our lives in each others’ hands, etc.
That’s when I realized that several of the other pledges had started openly crying. Loudly. They were terrified. The girl next to me whispered, “are you gonna do it?”
“Do what?” I asked.
I couldn’t control my reaction. I don’t even know if I tried, but apparently it wasn’t appropriate in the situation. I burst into hysterical laughter. The kind you can’t recover from. You just have to laugh.
The sisters sprang into action to try to contain me. They kept screaming “Alpha’s fun, not funny!” over and over. The more they did that with their furious red faces, the harder I laughed.
My laughter came from three thoughts that hit me all at once. First of all, I couldn’t believe that they’d ask us to jump. Second, I couldn’t believe that any of my prospective future sisters would do it. Third, I realized why they were crying – they were afraid if they didn’t jump they wouldn’t make it into Alpha.
This might come as a shock, but I didn’t make it into Alpha. (And by the way, the sisters had no intention of actually asking us to jump. It was a very high pier and a very low tide. But rumors had spread that this was the plan.)
I Wish Life Was Still That Simple…
I realized, looking back, that every action I was being “forced” into during rush week, I was doing of my own free will. I wanted to play the game. Then the game didn’t make sense to me anymore, so I stopped playing. I exercised my Free Won’t.
But at some point in my adult life, or rather, slowly over the course of my adult life, my veto power began to erode to the point where it seemed foreign and dangerous. And I’ll acknowledge that there are very real reasons we begin to feel powerless – ones that can never be minimized. In college, I had no idea about any of these things.
…but It Might Also Be That Simple
But I firmly believe we can find ways to walk that line between free will and determinism with our heads high. And I think Free Won’t is a great way to start thinking about it.