Free Will ©
By Dennis Dossett
As a young person I was deeply concerned with the question of “free will” versus “pre-determination” or “destiny.” I rejected the whole concept of destiny because it seemed to me that God gave us free will and that anything that threatened that free will was to be actively avoided or eliminated.
Just what is it about “free will” that we find so attractive? The dictionary defines free will as “the ability or discretion to choose freely”, or “the belief that a human being’s choices are or can be made freely, without external constraint.” Free will—choice—is the very essence of freedom, self-rule, autonomy, independence. We spend our youth longing for and growing toward the independence and autonomy that is the birthright of our maturity. Free will—choice—is the founding principle of the United States, and one of the most distinctive features of American culture.
In those younger days the concept of “destiny” (a lack of choice) seemed to me the antithesis of free will, and I just couldn’t accept it at that point in my life. Even more important to me than having free will was having the freedom to express my “free” will. How typical was my youth, and how conformist I was in my “non-conformist” rebellion! In those younger days I thought that Frank Sinatra had it exactly right in the song, “I Did It My Way!”
“I planned each charted course;
Each careful step along the byway,
But more, much more than this,
I did it my way.”
As I’ve grown older, I’ve often thought that Sinatra really hit the nail on the head in the final lines of the song:
”The record shows I took the blows —
And did it my way!”
More to the point, “I took the blows because I did it my way!” To paraphrase, “Why is it we are too soon old, and too late smart?” So much for free will!
I’ve always believed that God gives us free will as a sacred gift. My understanding, however, has grown to regard this gift not as an abstract concept but as an infinitely useful tool. Free will is often little more than an expression of the Self/ego but, more properly used, it is actually an expression of Higher Self, which has gently but persistently brought us to the point in soul evolution where we (as human beings) can even begin to think about “The Path.” I now agree entirely with Swami Kriyananda’s statement that, “Free will is not the freedom to do something totally unpredictable. Free will is the freedom to be guided by wisdom as opposed to ignorance.”
As I reflect on certain events in my life, I have frequently demonstrated an incredible amount of ignorance, and almost always because “I Did It My Way!” Many of those “blows” still smart, many years later. Now that I have a few more years of maturity, I am still very concerned about my “free will,” but not so much about keeping it as using it wisely. I’ve learned from sad experience that the misuse of my free will can be very costly indeed.
I still enjoy hearing Sinatra sing that song, but I’d like to change the lyrics sung by the character he portrays. I’d really like to be able to look back on my life and say, “I Did It Thy Way!” At least from some identifiable point in my life I’d like to be able to say (with conviction) that I did it because it was right, because it was the only wisdom-guided thing to do. I’m still working to create that “identifiable point” eventually from which to sing those lyrics.
I no longer think of free will as an end in itself, but as an integral part of a journey. I picture riding on a train being pulled by an old steam locomotive. The train runs from where I am right now to eventual union with God. The tracks are the Path, the train is my life, and the engine is my soul. Free will is my ability to freely choose whether to walk to the front of the train or to the rear of the train. I can choose to shovel more coal into the spiritual fire of the engine’s boiler to get more steam as it speeds along the rails to its ultimate destination. On the other hand, I can choose to while away my time in the numerous “baggage” cars filled with the accumulated egoic attachments and desires of many lifetimes, allowing the engine’s fire to burn low and the train to idle slowly along. I can choose to cut loose some of the baggage cars to lighten the load and increase the train’s speed or I can choose to keep adding more cars to carry all the baggage I accumulate, slowing the train’s progress. I can choose to pause on a side rail for a while or to take a lengthy detour before continuing my journey.
In terms of destiny, to me there is no question where the train is going (union with God), only when it will arrive. I can work (shovel coal) to feed the spiritual fire of the soul or I can languish in the many baggage cars of egoic attachments. I can take the most direct route possible or detour before getting back “on track.” That is the extent of my “free will,” the power to choose. I can choose to “cooperate and graduate” as the saying goes, or I can choose to insist on my own way. Whether guided by wisdom or by ego, I live with the consequences of my decisions. Through the Law of Cause and Effect, I alone am responsible for my future.
We think of God as omnipotent, all powerful. In fact, we have incredible power over God through the free will He gives us. We have the power to ignore God, to shut God out, and there is little that God can do about it but wait until we change our minds and become receptive to Him. Granted, sometimes God appears to shortcut this process. A notable example is the conversion of Saul of Tarsus (later known as the Apostle Paul) on the road to Damascus (Acts, Chapter 9). Sometimes we label these apparent shortcuts as “grace.” Often the label “grace” is applied after the fact for (like Saul) “grace” can feel more like a brick to the head or a swift kick in the seat of the pants. Generally, however, God’s omnipotence takes the form of infinite patience and infinite love. The ego can win every battle clear up until the last one, but God will ultimately win the war for the soul through infinite, patient, unconditional love. That is God’s nature. If we will but realize it (and one day we will), infinite, patient, unconditional love is our nature as well. The outcome is pre-determined, but the schedule on which the train runs—when it will arrive at its destination—is up to us.
I’ve come to accept the notion of destiny, but in a very different sense from how I thought of it years ago. I was taught to think that “destiny” meant to accept everything that happens as a matter of faith. If so, what does “free will” have to do with faith? Swami Kriyananda once said that, “Faith in God does not mean belief in God. Faith in God means to put your energy where your belief is.” Such faith is not at all passive; rather, it demands incredible courage and vigor. To me real faith means to choose willingly to shovel coal as fast as I can without regard to obstacles on the tracks (spiritual tests) or even knowing what lies ahead around the next bend. That kind of faith can be (and often is) very scary in practice. Wisdom-guided free will is the difference between that kind of “living faith” and passive belief. Real faith entails an acceptance of conditions as they are (what is) followed by choosing to commit energy to do something about it in order to reach the objective.
I’m still working to achieve that definition of faith, but at least “destiny” is now for me a very comforting and reassuring reality. Faith, the active, wisdom-guided expression of “free will,” deals with how and when I attain that reality.
”Today is my yesterday’s creation.
Today is my creation of tomorrow.
The choice of my tomorrow is up to me, today.”
I never know quite how to end these ramblings, so I’ll just summarize with a quotation I’ve meditated upon many times.
”We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails.”
~ Unknown ~