Free to Choose

 In Practical Guides, Repairing the World, SHIFT

“The problem is that God gave us Free Will.” This came from a sad, decaying mouth of an active heroin addict. It was one of those candid moments when we were just honest, plain and simple. Daniel had come to help various churches feed the homeless downtown, as well as qualifying as a recipient himself. Some of us had also come from our congregation with food and willing hands hoping to spread good cheer.

Everyone was fed so the workers had sat down to have their own lunch. I sat down by Daniel and introduced myself. I knew he attended the Native American church that sponsors this monthly event, but I was not aware of his own personal circumstances. Until that moment, the only thing I had seen was of his interaction with the homeless while helping distribute their meals. He was compassionate and caring, obviously enjoying the role of caregiver. Even heroin addicts have their pride.

He continued, “I wish someone could just bonk me on the head, and I would come to my senses and never do drugs again. It’s just so hard when it’s a choice.”  Is there anyone breathing who cannot identify with his plight? It may or may not be drugs, but how many disasters in our lives have we brought on ourselves due to making bad choices. When Rav Shaul (Paul) said, “I do the thing I do not want to do,” we know what he meant. It could be so easy.

Or could it? I am reminded of Aldous Huxley’s characters in Brave New World. Their world, essentially our world projected into the future, had come to where most individuals no longer had to make any choices. Everything went along fine as long as everyone stayed in his or her pre-determined roles. The major problem, however, is there was still a small group that did all of that determining.

This world was complete with cloning and brain re-arranging so that persons were well suited for whatever jobs the overseers expected them to do. The obvious issue was how to leave them just enough brainpower in the midst of mundane existence so that little supervision was needed, but such that the individuals would not get tempted to think for themselves and try to make their own choices.

These persons were not allowed to fall into want for anything. Personal comfort was the main goal of life. There was no provision, however, for maintaining warm, human relationships, not even for the little ones. Babies came from test tubes, were maintained in warehouses and introduced to their ready roles as soon as prescribed. In this “futuristic” world, even procreation had been taken care of separate from the people, except of course that the makings for babies had to be extracted from each of them.

The inmates were encouraged to find physical pleasure in each other, but not to form attachments. Even when one of the drones falls into a situation in which she becomes pregnant, she is swept off to the totally controlled reservation. To allude to another futuristic work, “Resistance is futile.”

Likewise, in Orwell’s Animal Farm, life was planned for the animals such that thought was not required. It is interesting to note that animals really do not have anything like free will. They have instinct, primarily for self-survival. They will eat someone else’s food, run others out of their claimed space, and run away from it all if the threat is heinous enough. In this case, of course, the reader is supposed to realize that the animals are really people, but have been dehumanized to the point that they should lock-step to their own doom at the bidding of those who are “more equal” than the others. If they were indeed animals, they could be counted on to do just that. Being human, they rose up against the tyranny.

I wonder if Daniel has read either of these books. We have seen some pretty heavy-handed attempts by society both in fiction and in the real world, to control the destiny of others. It seems to me sometimes that it is the great impetus for political parties. Each has a worldview that necessitates the participants to behave in certain prescribed ways for their world to turn.

How does one get individuals with free will to fit into these molds? Stealth is supreme with little concern for individuals’ lives. The goal is convincing the masses, first and foremost, that they need not bother themselves with the day-to-day running of these big issues. The bottom line is still that the elite, the “good thinkers” know what is best and they will promise us our hearts’ desires. Leave the decision making to them.

Do we really want someone to just come in and bonk us on the head and make us do right? As the proposed “bonkee,” are we not giving the “bonker” our proxy for determining what is right? That doesn’t even work in fiction. We want what human beings yearn for. We want to have life, liberty and the freedom to pursue happiness. All right, America!

To bring it closer to home, I am sure at one point in parenting all of us have fantasized that our kids would just do what we say, when we say it. Admit it! What are we really saying. Even that little newborn has an opinion and a will, which is God-given. Would we truly have it otherwise? It is hard to raise children who think, who know right from wrong, who care about others. Check out any preschool and watch reactions where the dreaded “share” word is operant.

The Lord knows that we can be very much about just our own survival. He could have nipped everything in the bud by just removing free will. “Won’t somebody just tell me what to do and make me do it!”  I say God could have made a world of automatons, but He could not. He had a plan – a dream? He believed that his Creation would have the ability to say no to the good things he offers, even no to His love, but would use the gifts He placed in them to return to be with Him.  Instead what happens much of the time is that our world looks pretty selfish and chaotic, more like a nightmare.

Let’s remember, however, He is the Creator. So along with the homing device he planted in us, He placed the ability to weigh good and evil, to learn from cause and effect, and to show concern for all of his Creation. He placed His strength in us that we might choose Life. These qualities are muscles that must be exercised. The more we use them, the stronger they get.

Our hurdles may be different, but the remedy is the same. In order for us to say yes to the thing we know leads to fullness of life, requires that we say no to something else. That other thing may provide us more creature comfort in the here-and-now, but what are the long-term ramifications? Can we delay gratification? Can we put aside that myriad of things compelling us this time to throw caution to the wind? Can we exercise self-denial, moderation and good sense?

If all we want is today, we are pretty much saying that we accept that our long-term prognosis is bad. What we reap tomorrow is only what we sow today. If we want to have all the things our forefathers sought for us and placed in our governing instruments – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – they are completely within our grasp. God created us so that we would know what works best to reach our best potential, in ourselves and in our relationships.

It is tough to get back on track if we are stuck in a rut of too much giving in to temptation. It will challenge us to take even baby steps. Whatever tempts us, we can say no for 15 minutes. The next time, we can make it 30 minutes, and so on. My mother-in-law stopped smoking that way many years ago. She is now 91 with lungs showing little residual damage.

Another good piece of advice I have applied is to remove myself from the temptation. The Lord’s Prayer says “Lead me not into temptation,” realizing that it is best to not be around the thing, situation or person that might lead us to disaster. Likewise, when in a situation where we catch ourselves saying, “I will just take one, or do this once,” we need to run away. We should have animal instincts for these occasions. Flight is often the best solution.

Finally, to answer Daniel, the problem is not that there is free will. The real issue is that it is not free. We have to work for it, even fight for it. It is ours for the taking, but like everything else, it comes with a price. I am reminded of a toddler with a candy gripped in his little hand, crying because he wants to take his father’s hand, but to do so he must let go of the candy. There is always choice. I pray we both choose well, my fellow traveler.

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