Do you feel like your life is going where you want it to? Do you believe that your past experience makes change impossible? Establishing freedom of choice is the first step towards spiritual and emotional and progress. Inner change depends on inner freedom.
How do you know you have freedom of choice? For Viktor Frankl choice is self-evident.
Actually only two types of people maintain that their will is not free; schizophrenic patients suffering from the delusion that their will is manipulated and their thoughts controlled by others; and, alongside them deterministic philosophers ~ The Feeling of Meaninglessness
Yet, we doubt our capacity to choose. We believe that our past and our ingrained habits force us into behavior patterns that cannot be changed.
To this internal voice you can answer that there is always something you can do, even if it’s very small. Some changes are easy to make. Others are more difficult. But choice is a quality, not a quantity. The essential power to choose is part of your nature. The question is not if you can choose. The question is how.
For example, a couple gets into an argument. They fall into their usual pattern of blaming each other. The wife decides to try and break the pattern and chooses to try something new. She shares her feelings and in response her partner explains that when she acts helpless he gets the impression that she wants to be rescued. Her choice to act differently from her usual pattern leads to better communication.
Your habits, your emotional states and even your thoughts are not the you that decides. You can wake up in the morning and say to yourself: ‘Today I will put a different thought into my head’ or ‘I can say no to myself.’ As Frankl says:
Certainly man has instincts, but these instincts do not have him. We have nothing against instincts, nor against a man’s accepting them. But we hold that such acceptance must also presuppose the possibility of rejection. In other words, there must have been freedom of decision. (Doctor and the Soul xvii)
Similarly Maimonides, the Medieval codifier of Jewish law states:
Free will is bestowed on every human being. If one desires to turn toward the good way and be righteous, he has the power to do so. If one wishes to turn toward the evil way and be wicked, he is at liberty to do so...Man, of himself and by the exercise of his own intelligence and reason, knows what is good and what is evil, and there is none who can prevent him from doing that which is good or that which is evil...Every person turns to the way which he desires, spontaneously and of his own volition...(Laws of Repentance, 5:1-3)
Free will is a given, God-given. As human beings we have reason and intelligence and we have awareness of what is right and what is wrong. We are capable of independently making right choices. There is nothing forcing us to do the wrong thing.
Because we are aware, we are responsible and we are held accountable for our actions. As Maimonides continues:
If God had decreed that a person should be either righteous or wicked, or if there were some force inherent in his nature which irresistibly drew him to a particular course...how could the Almighty have charged us through the prophets: “Do this and do not do that, improve your ways, do not follow your wicked impulses,” when, from the beginning of his existence his destiny had already been decreed, or his innate constitution irresistibly drew him to that from which he could not set himself free? What room would there be for the whole of the Torah? By what right or justice could God punish the wicked or reward the righteous? “Shall not the Judge of all the earth act justly?” (Genesis 18:25) (Laws of Repentance, 5:4)
However, it does not follow automatically that a person who identifies as religious believes in his own freedom of choice nor can we assume that a so-called religious person always makes good choices. Free choice has to be accessed. The voice inside your head that insists ‘I can’t’ has to be answered. More on this next time.