Yesterday I posed a question on what is the difference between humans and animals? It seems as though animals act based on a prewritten script, a blueprint of instructions. Their instincts determine their every move. Humans on the other hand seem to have a choice of how to react. Some may say that we are “determined” to act in a certain way exactly like animals do, but some may say there is something in us, somewhere in our human brain that can think, weigh the odds and make a choice. I mentioned that, as we lead our lives we are constantly acted on by external forces. The course your life takes directly depends on how much you push back, im talking about another force, one from an internal origin.
Watching my kids grow has been a pure delight. There is a moment, around one year old, that your child will suddenly make their first choice. I think this is the moment your baby becomes a toddler. “Toddler” say it with me, it has a little playful sound to it, makes your tongue dance in your mouth. They come with many surprises at this age.
You see, a little baby depends on their parents for everything. When they get hungry, they cry. The parent will come rushing in with a bottle to save the day. They soil their diaper. The parents look at each other, the first one to give in rushes in to save the day and so on.
Then comes that magical moment. Around one year old you may place a good nutritious variety of food in front of your darling baby. She will pick up a few pieces of food and suddenly, without warning, toss them to the floor. What just happened? You turn your attention to them, scoop a spoonful of food and aim for their mouth. Their response, “neh” and turn their head at the last second just in time for the spoon to come crashing into their cheek. More food on the floor. This also happens to be the dog’s favorite day in child development. So where did this sudden choice come from?
Let me explain.
As we grow, we come to this realization, that we have a choice in what we eat, what we do and how we react. A toddler keeps growing and learning about choices, they learn what they like and what they don’t. Many times it may seem absurd what they choose to do, but hey, even if they are eating off the floor, at least they are eating, right? It is the parents duty to help guide their child to discover new truths of life, like broccoli really isn’t that bad, or they can slide down the slide on their own. They also learn that crying for everything is not the best reaction but instead to ask for help.
I’m struggling with my three year old right now, trying to teach her to ask for a snack instead of cry for a snack. When she stubs her toe or gets a scratch to wait instead of crying, wait, waaaait, and the pain will eventually go away. Crying is the response a baby shows to feeling discomfort. It is in learning how to better deal with discomfort that they grow.
I tell this to my patients as well. Especially someone trying to lose weight or kick a habit. There is no magic pill or exercise, to lose weight you just have to push against the discomfort of feeling hungry. To stop smoking cigarettes you have to push against the discomfort of withdrawal. To get that gym body you have to face the discomfort of going there in the first place.
Our path in life may only depend on these two forces. External forces and your internal force. External is what happens to you, internal is what you make happen. For example, if you walk outside and suddenly it rains. The rain is the external force. You may decide to go back in the house and get an umbrella or risk a few drops and dash like a madman to the car. That is the internal force that helps determine your response to the rain, how you choose to react.
External forces are out of our control. The weather, what happens in the news, the driver that ignores the red light and crashes into another. Some of us are very preoccupied of what may happen in the future. We check the weather report, we try to predict the stock market, we try to imagine what will happen if we say this or that to her or him. Some of us just take one day, one moment at a time. I’m not the one to say which is better but I embrace these changes instead of grubble.
If it’s sunny out I run outside and enjoy the heat on my skin. If it’s rainy and stormy I run outside and enjoy running against the resistance of the wind and the sting of the rain drops.
Depending on what you believe, these external forces may just be random occurrences in our lives. Internal force is within our control. So ask yourself, would you rather be concerned with what is in your control or what is outside of your control? We decide how we react to external forces, the decisions we make, the actions we take, the mood we exhibit.
There is a flaw in the argument though.
How much of what we do is taught to us by our surroundings and circumstances? How much of how we react to external stimuli are simply prewritten by our previous experience? It is hard to say. Some of us believe that our decisions are in our own hands, some are okay accepting the fact that we are predetermined. Some like to think that these forces are subject to the metaphysical or religious but that’s another discussion.
The argument of determinism takes a different stand. It assumes that we are no different from animals, that we simply react based on a prewritten script, that our actions are merely determined by our genes and previous experience. Determinism goes as far as stripping away our free will.
If we cannot choose to act a certain way but instead the choice is made for us by our god or our genes we must therefore have no free will to choose to make a decision. What? So both religion and Darwin had it wrong?
This is an important issue in the legal system. The question of criminal responsibility routinely creeps up in the judicial system. It is the goal of a lawyer to prove their client’s actions were due to external forces. When I was in Afghanistan I caught wind of a famous court case where two F 16 fighter pilots had their sentence of manslaughter reduced on the defence that their actions were influenced by “go pills.” They were taking prescription amphetamines offered by the Air Force at the time which was a routine practice for pilots to help them stay alert on long missions. An unfortunate incident happened where they dropped a bomb on friendly forces killing several. Amphetamines blamed for Friendly Fire.
Despite the flaws in the legal system we have to remember that external forces may just be out of our control. Once we accept that we can start clearing those anxieties from our daily lives. Try giving up checking the weather, checking the news or trying to predict others’ behavior.
Look back at your life and try to see what forces have acted on you and how you chose to respond. Which of your actions then led to good things and which led to bad? Now that you have that separated in your mind, try and think, were all those actions, with good or bad outcomes, made entirely by you? Were you ultimately the one that chose to stop trying diets or stop working out or working on your relationship or working for the sake of working?
So what if another person’s decision directly affects your life?
If your boss demands you to do something, if a parent restricts their child or a Jewish man is held captive by the Nazis, it means that their life circumstance was determined by someone else’s decision, right? Consider this, from the worker or child or Jew’s perspective they were merely acted on by an external force. The choice they have is in how they will react to their suppressor.
The amazing story of Viktor Frankl illustrates this beautifully. He was an Austrian Neurologist, Psychologist and Holocaust survivor. As a concentration camp inmate he discovered these truths about our lives. He said that “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in a any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Man’s Search For Meaning
So hopefully we are a little closer to understanding ourselves, maybe you are just as confused as I am, but it’s worth a try to see life this way, to take responsibility for our past actions and consider the effects of our future decisions.
With that I leave you to watch Star Wars and really think what is this force within you.
The force is strong with this one.