Archive for the 'free will' Category

Coerced consent

July 28, 2015

I wrote a paper years ago about the validity of coerced consent in Roman Law, which focused on the person coerced and what responsibility they had for their subsequent (coerced) act and whether that act was valid from an external point of view.  But it occurred to me this morning that I haven’t much thought about the consequences of the coercion to the person engaging in — doing —  the coercion.  I don’t have any particular desire to go see how Roman Law thought about this.  I do know that rule over Rome by kings ended with Tarquin’s and that he was overthrown (the paper took as its point of departure Livy’s telling of the story of Tarquin’s rape of Lucretia).  How I myself would think about it is that a coercer cannot expect the same consequences to flow from a coerced act as would flow from an act freely engaged in by the other person.  Or rather, while a person who has engaged in coercion can expect whatever they want, I don’t think the consequences to the coercer from a coerced act will be the same as the consequences to them from what looks like a similar act but is freely given.

Unique music

March 21, 2015

I was thinking about free will this morning, and what I came up with was that we have it in order to make the freely willing choice not to exercise it — and in so doing, we arrange our energy in a way that allows us to find spiritual union.

That arrangement we can call surrender, but I’ve learned that for some people, “surrender” has the connotation of some particular dominance/submissive thing such as we see in certain kinds of sexual relationships.  Surrender to God, to the forces beyond us in the universe, does not feel like that at all.  Apples and oranges.

So that’s why I find the vocabulary of energy sometimes more helpful, because it’s more neutral, got fewer overlays and connotations.

And it has to be a continual willingness to give rise to the relationship of union.  People crash when they initially have the willingness and attempt great heights and then something shifts their trust momentarily before they have finished a particular spiritual experience, and they fall.  Kind of like climbing the rope and deciding it can’t be done while you are halfway up.  Not a good idea.

I have no problem if other people see faith as belief that an unanchored rope can be climbed.  It is a little bit like that, I think, only in the non-physical realm that belief actually makes a difference, whereas within our consensus reality, I don’t think individuals can make radical changes and override its current structure;  what we can do is figure out how to minimize drag and harness force and achieve lift, and we can participate and help achieve a different consensus reality.  (There’s a lot of air flights in physical aircraft every day;  if more people learned how to achieve spiritual lift, I think that would be something.)  Our consensus reality is not the only game in town; we can see mistakes and limitations in a child’s thinking;  I think more of us should entertain the notion that adult human thinking has its mistakes and limitations, too.  With regard to faith, it isn’t faith if it doesn’t include an element of something beyond what we can see and control in the physical world — it must be a rope trick.  It’s just that in things spiritual, the rope trick works.

So if we have free will and we use it to its ultimate capacity, we use it to put it aside.  And if everybody does this, we all end up on the same page and glide along without the high degree of friction we currently have, and the ecosystem of which we humans are a part functions so much better.  I think an impediment we have encountered is that some people who think they like friction, persist in that thinking because they’ve found some way to avoid the feedback for engaging in friction.  That could be through finding an enabler, it could be through bullying, it could be through refusing to see the impact of the downside of friction on others.  The other usual mechanism for ending an infatuation with friction is satiation, and it is well recognized that people with certain kinds of profiles (I would say, with certain kinds of damage) don’t become sated, their hole is bottomless.

But the opportunity for us to have free will and then the further opportunity for us to decide to put it aside, and learn to actually do that, I think creates some unique and beautiful music in the universe.  I just wish more people could lend their voices to that song.




December 23, 2014

I liked reading in today’s Daily Meditation from Richard Rohr about how spirituality involves freely given service.

When such freely given service is confused with coerced service, even if the coerced service is coerced from one capable and willing to give (other) service freely, we end up, I think, with trouble.  Or at least in the realm of the taffy-pull of more mundane human social relation dynamics.


September 4, 2014

I was telling this story to someone last night and I thought I might as well mention it here, judging from the reaction I got.

A family member was having a medical emergency a couple of weeks ago on a Friday afternoon.  And I suggested they call a relevant clinician they had been seeing for quite some time, to get some help at least in finding some help, and they called — and were told “It will have to wait until Monday, he’s not in until then.”  And my family member explained it was more urgent than that and asked if there was someone else in the practice who could help, and the answer was no.

And then my family member called back another number, which they had cold-called earlier and been turned away from, and this time they were told they could come in.  Their ride to the ER turned into a ride elsewhere and they got some treatment and it helped.

No, it couldn’t wait.

It’s a pattern I’ve encountered before, in different variations and with different people in different roles — myself sometimes in the role of the patient — and with different outcomes, some pretty disastrous.

I think the point of the lesson for me has been to understand that people who seem to be supposed to help us may decline to do so as part of their exercise of human free will (and will in all likelihood not be troubled by it).

Forgiving them for this is a different issue from accepting a world in which people don’t have to do what seems obvious to us that they should.


April 24, 2014

I very much appreciated Richard Rohr’s reminder this morning that “Without all the inner voices of resistance and control, it is amazing how much you can get done and not get tired.”  That’s in today’s Daily Meditation.

Gita and I have talked about this, too — couldn’t do it without “letting go” and “turning it over.”

Now, I am perfectly prepared to believe that I could do this better.  I put up resistance (like a kid pushing the spinach to the side of their plate), I fret, I get ahead of myself, I try to get other people to act in a way to prevent a future problem (like trying to get them to correct, before it is filed, a tax return that has mistakes in it).

I think I see two additional issues, in addition to “letting go” and “turning it over,” but, as I said, I am prepared to discover the issue lies with me.

One is volume.

I just end up with too many things on my plate as a result of being open to and able to do caretaking.  The inflow can feel as if it exceeds my processor’s capacity.

The second is society’s (unreasonable) demands.

The two kind of intertwine.

I once heard someone say that she thought of the nursing home in which her mother lived as being like “one big alcoholic.”  She meant that the institution could be as difficult to deal with as a human alcoholic, and with similar patterns of behavior.  I’ve felt similarly about other institutions, including schools, hospitals, social services, the justice system.  Whether it’s damaging behavior by the institution to a loved one or demands from the institution on me (as a caretaker), it can feel as if what I am called upon to do exceeds the amount of energy I can give it without too much damage to myself.

It’s no secret that patients in hospitals and nursing homes who have caretakers of their own weighing in as case managers do better, get better care, etc.

So where to draw the line between detachment and involvement?

It’s not just the wisdom of knowing the difference between what we can change and what we can’t, it’s also putting a boundary on how much of ourselves we can deploy without too much depletion.  Inflow from prayer and meditation certainly helps, but I think outflow can exceed inflow if care is not taken.  On the other hand, there is an instinct or desire to try to prevent or ameliorate suffering of others.  Part of that is wrapped up in trying to avoid pain — something we are encouraged to do by our norms and our survival instinct.  I think there is also a part of helping others in some situations that is from pressure from social norms more directly, regardless of where we think we should be drawing lines and regardless of inner guidance about where to observe boundaries, of what’s ours to do and what’s not.

My sense is that we have with our current social organization shifted around responsibility like a hot potato or like a shell in a game in which something is being hidden beneath one of a number of inverted cups.  Some techniques we seem to me to use to do this include, for example, narrowly defining our piece of the project and expecting others to do more;  littering, on the justification that one little piece won’t hurt;  setting systems up in such a way that requires a person without authority or control to have responsibility.

I don’t know if human free will can “clog up the plumbing” of the system of human interaction and society, or whether it’s the case that any system we devise can work, so long as those who have to use it interface adequately with divine help.  But I admit that sometimes I think we have developed a system that doesn’t work, especially for the long run.

For me, the questions are relevant to the issue of how much better a situation can be expected to go — because I am often hearing from others that things could be better if I just _______.  I have run through a fair number of _______, and I am here to say they do not necessarily work as advertized.  Maybe this is why 12-step programs refrain from advice and why the most general helpful source I found after Willy died was actually Al-Anon, the program for family and friends of alcoholics, although Willy was not a qualifier of mine.

At any rate, I conclude for now that working on my part of the equation, so long as I do it gently, can’t hurt, but that I should also be wary of assuming that optimizing my own part will result in things going better in other ways.

“This is your life”

January 7, 2014

Some people invite a “mirror” into their lives, perhaps unwittingly.  They may think they have merely coerced someone into helping them out, but when that person turns out to be one of these “mirrors,” they may find themselves like someone who has inadvertently ordered cooked internal organs from a menu written in another language:  they are treated to a “This is your life” scenario in which the mirror plays a role they previously played.  As liberals are quick to say about Congressman Paul Ryan about his attitude towards (dismantling) entitlements, after he allegedly financed a college education on Social Security Survivor’s Benefits (I’m not saying all this is true, I’m just referencing a paradigm using a popular example that people at least think is true), people sometimes have a really negative reaction to seeing the same scenario from a different perspective.  I think we think this is because the person has unresolved issues; in Rep. Ryan’s case, we might think he never dealt with his vulnerability and the randomness of losses that put one at the mercy of others’ helpfulness.  So people who are being mirrored, not for their present situation, but to revisit an old scenario from another perspective, they may be horrified and want to play the other role differently from the way it was played for them:  they may decline to be helpful where someone was kind to them, they may decline to take a chance on someone when someone took a chance on them, they may even become morally outraged at someone wondering whether there’s a sexual component to a relationship when they actually were involved in something similar — some sort of sexual relationship, or quasi-sexual relationship, or the dangled possibility thereof —  in their own past.  If a mirror has kept her perspective, she remembers that the person she is mirroring has free will and may opt not to play the role in the way it was played for the other person.  Her need is to handle the “energy” of the situation so that she is not shattered, especially if that energy goes back over many instantiations of the same patterns over many past lives.  As they say, “Don’t shoot the messenger;”  this is a case of “Don’t shatter a mirror [just because you asked for one and then decided you don’t want it after the fact].”  A mirror has to be careful not to accept somebody else’s stuff — “Your stuff, not mine,” she needs to model.  “If you don’t want a mirror, fine;” because if a person wants a mirror but tries to use it in a way that will shatter it, the relationship that included the mirroring will change, in some way or another — the energy has to go somewhere.  If the person being mirrored deflects it away, the energy goes somewhere.  A mirror does not owe it to anyone to take that energy as a direct hit on herself.  A mirror who is aware that others have been shattered trying to work with this lineage in the past will be careful to stay at a safe angle so as not to repeat the debacle.  Chances are, the person being mirrored does not see the situation at all from the perspective from which the mirror sees it.  It helps if the mirror doesn’t expect them to, but if they ask for an explanation, she may try to provide one.  It’s hard to find a secular cultural vocabulary in which to express such an explanation.

How it feels to other people (and a little about free will)

October 23, 2013

I have wondered for a while whether some people perceive things with a different calibration system from mine.

For example, if I help them with their art project and let them take some of my supplies, are they going to feel put upon if I ask them for help on mine and the of use of some of their supplies?  Does it feel to them in that situation as it would feel to me if someone asked for my help and supplies out of the blue and without any idea of returning the favor in any way or having any on-going relationship to me?

I think some people actually feel indignant when they are asked to do unto others as the others have done unto them.  They seem to be very emotionally invested in an assumption that the system should be asymmetrical.  I don’t know why they feel a need for things to be that way.  I suspect that any change in outlook would have to come out of a change at a deeper level, such that they would no longer feel diminished by giving back.

I can find some compassion for a person who has such a hungry need, but I don’t have to try to feed it.  Eventually they usually explode or go away once I stand up for myself and insist on equality.  That wasn’t, apparently, what they had in mind, despite anything they may have said or despite social norms about relationships.  My contribution to the misunderstanding may seeing them as other than as they are (and accepting their own version of themselves for too long) and expecting them to do something they don’t do, or it may just be having been coerced by them to help them, that has happened, too.

Whether they could engage in reciprocity I don’t know, but it raises an interesting question about the existence of free will.  When I see things with compassion, I find myself folding “a will to not reciprocate” into “an inability to do better than having a will not to reciprocate” — in other words, I see them as not being able to do better than to assert their will in this way.  So from that approach I don’t see any free will.  In terms of what is actually going on when people think they are using free will, well, everything we tell ourselves is some kind of story.  We always have, in secular thought, the position of a participant on the field, we are never seeing the whole picture from the perspective of an outsider.

The teacher came and the student said, “Never mind.”

August 29, 2013

I was using, in a news comment online, the old aphorism about how when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.

Sometimes this happens, and instead of a learning experience, what occurs next is a dissolution:  the student realizes what is entailed and does not follow through.

It can look as if the student was lying about being ready, but I think the problem is that the teacher forgot about free will:  the student has the power to bail out at any time.

What can make a mess of an essentially simple situation is when the teacher has sacrificed on behalf of the student and predicated what they have done in preparation for the teaching on the student’s following through.  That leaves the teacher in an impossible situation.  The student won’t help.  It’s a lesson for the teacher not to go that far for a student.

What has gone wrong is that the teacher had a some personal investment in having the situation work out.  That, together with the student’s capacity to believe their own lies, is enough to have created what looks like a false promise.

The teacher may be left in a difficult situation, but the teacher is the one with the tools and the knowledge.  They know how to let go by simply observing what is going on.  It does not require that the student change what they are doing.  It does require more emotional health on the teacher’s part than the teacher had going into the situation.  But that is between them and God, it’s not about the student.

It’s much easier to see all this if one is a teacher who has been happily married.  Expecting bachelors to navigate this kind of unbalanced relationship is unrealistic.  Expecting bachelor teachers who have been upended by this scenario to ask for help immediately was also unrealistic, but eventually even they got tired of replaying this scene over and over again with the same dismal results.

I can see why they kept at it, though, because the resolution of the situation is very sad and very disappointing, and that’s on top of all the damage done.  It’s kind of like retiring a bad debt and not being seduced into pouring more money into subsequent loans on the hope that this will lead to the entire amount being repaid in the end.

Part of the situation is really what could be called “continuing education” for teachers.  Teachers can have flaws, too.  Teachers may need a tune-up and some gentle supervision, may need some help themselves to bang out a ding to their emotional apparatus.

The teacher can, in time, be grateful to the student for showing them how they have a flaw of wanting to help a student more than serves the greater good of student, teacher, or anything else.  But it’s tough all around.  Nobody walks away unscathed.  When everybody walks away at all, we see it as a success.

Close but no cigar

August 16, 2013

I was talking to someone about how I had recently gone through my father’s financial records looking for particular information regarding two investments.  I eventually found the information for one in handwritten notes by my dad, the other in a very old and unusual (in his records) slip of paper.  The person who needed the information was impressed, and I was trying to explain to this other person (the someone I was talking to) why I kept at it until I found the documents.  (It took a while.)

What I was trying to communicate was that I believed the information was there, somewhere in the files — I had faith.  In this case, because I knew my father kept good records — sometimes on scraps of paper, perhaps — that he was thorough and he knew what he needed to have on hand.  That kept me looking, because I knew the information was there, would be there, that all I had to do was keep at it.  It may have taken me multiple passes through the relevant files, but indeed, it was there, it did turn out to be there.

My interlocutor responded by saying that they understood — that I pursued the search because I knew the information was there because my father kept his files in a logical manner.

It’s not that there’s no connection between logical record keeping and thoroughness, but I would say the emphasis is different.  I knew the stuff had to be there because I knew my dad knew the information would be needed and I knew he felt this stuff is important — he would have a complete set of records.  His arrangement of his records may be “logical,” although I’m not sure it stands out to me that way, but the structure of the organization only indirectly implies completeness.

I take two things from mulling this over.  First is that people see things from different angles, through their own set of lenses.  My interlocutor is heavily into logic and seeing my father as logical.  I know that.

Second, that there is a difference between articulating the idea directly and only implying it.  I think that difference can make a difference in other contexts.  Here are two:  spiritual union and human relationships.  There is a huge difference in outcome depending upon whether union itself is desired or there is just willingness to serve (regardless of whether it turns out that experiencing union is part of what serves).  In human relationships, some people think they have succeeded in only implying a commitment and can claim they never actually made it through their actual behavior.  However, what they were communicating from their heart matters, even if they did not themselves hear it or they would deny it now.  On the other hand, people have the free will to believe their own versions.  They can cling to them, too, they can remain disconnected from what is going on deep within them.  It surprises me, though, that they would prefer the version that allows them to look superficial and manipulative — I would think they’d want to unify themselves and be connected with as much as possible of what is going on inside of them.  To me it’s like having closets you’ve never opened.

But I think that’s just it:  I think some people are afraid of themselves.  When I’ve encountered them, I’ve found nothing cosmically significant of a negative sort — just garden variety pettiness, greed, selfishness, and the like, used in an attempt to assuage some fear, doubt, or insecurity.  Nothing special, nothing terrible, just human characteristics some of us make more of an effort to minimize.  I suspect being more open to minimizing has to do with learning to accept sharing and loss, which, I think, in turn, requires being strong enough from within to not be dependent on external indicia of worth.  We learn we are no better and no worse than others, and I think that makes us more generous and compassionate towards others without our having to dwell on these things on each occasion.


July 21, 2013

I got an email recently, an automated one, thanking me for requesting some materials from a brokerage firm.

I didn’t request them.  I agreed to receive them when an employee from that company was making a pitch to me on the phone — it was a way to end that part of the conversation and get back to what the original agenda was supposed to be.

It’s interesting, because I’ve had others do a variation of that when I’ve been in the other role, but often the scenario has included my interlocutor embellishing their willingness to entertain my proposal — and I have taken that embellishment as a reflection of their willingness to go further than entertain my proposal (which sometimes has been in the form of a statement of need).  I am pretty sure that in many cases, my interpretation that they were on board was welcomed and encouraged by them — a few even were explicit that they were on board.

But I suspect that in some fundamental way none of these people ever really moved off the space of being willing merely to entertain the issue, and that they didn’t feel obliged to follow through because in some way they had never committed themselves to what they had indicated to me they were going to do.

And for me the lesson has been that people can do that, regardless of the impact on me, regardless of whether it’s right or wrong, and certainly regardless of (my) need.  It has been damnum absque injuria.

For me, Jackson Browne’s “Sky Blue and Black” comes closest to depicting someone trying to make amends in this kind of situation.  Don’t know what the other person, the person addressed in the song, thought of the attempt.

I had a friend in high school whose mother had died when she was twelve (from breast cancer).  Kelley more or less raised her younger sister and three younger brothers, they had very little money, and she was in honors classes and went on to a prestigious university.  She used to say, “Take what you can when you can and be grateful.”  She died at the age of 28 from ovarian cancer.  I suspect she had (figured out?) a more helpful attitude than I have towards the type of scenario I still struggle with.