Life is a grand act. It’s the play set out by the universe, the cosmic dance which exists for the sole purpose of its own inherent beauty. We humans - individual manifestations of this grand ballet - are here to each play a role.
What might this role be? Are we free to choose our fate or is our destiny pre-set? The answer, as always, lies somewhere in the middle.
In this article, my intention is to explore the true meaning of free will. In spiritual and scientific fields alike, the idea of whether we are truly free to choose our paths though existence is highly debated. Religious-minded individuals may believe that God has it all planned for us - and likewise, more rationally-minded individuals may hold the belief that everything, past and future, is predictable through the magic of science - as in the simple physical model suggested by Newtonian physics.
Yet simultaneously, God has supposedly imbued humanity with free will - why otherwise would there be a point in creating the universe at all? All the while, quantum physics demonstrates a game of probability governed by the appearance of randomness.
God does not play dice, a very wise man once said. But does existence need to be limited to the dichotomy of predictability versus total randomness? Have we no free will at all? Truth, in my own belief, tends to always hide somewhere in shades of gray. Not one truth, mind you - but rather a whole spectrum of truth: a new truth for every single infinite shade of gray, for every single one of us.
The Nature of “Me”, The Nature of “You”
Within the philosophical model that sees the universe as a grand cosmic play, we become players - wearing the masks that help make our performances all the more convincing. What might these masks be? They consist of our names, our professions, our nationality, our gender. Each of these characteristics helps us fulfill whatever role we choose to slip into as we develop in mature human beings.
Some of these attributes are assigned to us at conception - such as ethnicity and gender. Others are assumed unconsciously through environmental and social pressure, such as nationality or religious affiliation. Others still are chosen by us, more or less consciously or willfully, such as profession. Together these end up forming a symbiosis with who we are, and as we advance in society the labels we’ve come to associate with end up forming a deeper and stronger bond. Sooner or later, we identify completely with these artificial attributes, and we lose track of who we really are.
I say who we really are because none of these traits which we’ve assigned to our personality has anything to do with the ultimate nature of our being. If I had been born in a different context or had chosen a different path in life, then a different set of labels and attributes would have come to be attached to my personality. Yet, I would remain the same fundamental being.
When we surrender to whatever role has been organically cast onto us by society, or even by biology, we surrender power over our own destiny. If I say: I’m a man, and this is what’s expected of a man, and so this is what I’ll be doing - I become a slave to what society dictates it means to be a man. If I say: My parents raised me to be a scientist, and I prefer art, but I’ll be a good child and obey my parents - I become a slave to my parent’s beliefs (beliefs which are not their own, but tend to be inherited down the generations). If I’m born a German, then I might end up being educated a slave to the shame inherited from the past through history.
When we surrender to labels, we automatically limit our potential to the boundaries defined by these labels. We prevent ourselves from accepting and realizing the potential that lies within us but that might outstrip the mask we’ve come to identify ourselves with.
When we surrender to the masks imposed on us by the combination of heritage and social pressure, we strip ourselves of whatever power we might have over our own fate - we instead turn ourselves into victims of fate. God might as well play dice, or be pulling all the strings. It won’t make a difference: if all we do is obey, then what does it matters what exactly we obey?
But this isn’t all there is. We don’t have to be mere slaves of destiny. However we’ve been conditioned by society, it’s possible to turn the tables around and regain the power we were meant to have upon our conception.
The Illusion of Control
When I use the word victim, I’m referring to the belief that we somehow don’t hold any meaningful power over our own fate. It’s the belief that most of what happens in life happens to us.
Life, however, doesn’t happen to us. Life simply happens.
Life simply happens because there is no distinction between us and life. We are life, and therefore we are happening - not to anything, not from anything - just happening.
Society conditions us in a way that leads us to believe we have little control over existence. I’m not going to try to convince you of the opposite, simply because I don’t believe in either control or absence of control. Control only makes sense as a concept if there is a controller and a controllee - but as I’ve suggested before, this dichotomy is an artificial construction. There is no controller doing the controlling, there is only life flowing and being. Control is ultimately a mere illusion.
Control is an artificial concept created by society, it’s something which has little to no presence in the natural world or in so-called primitive human societies. Animals, as most other life forms in general, don’t try to live to be anything - they just live to be. The desire to be something more than what we are is a mechanism born out of a reaction to fear: the fear of loss, the fear of abandonment, and ultimately the fear of death. Our desire to escape the less-desirable experiences of the physical world has led us to build mechanisms to limit our Earthly experiences - succeeding in barring a handful of negative experiences, for a time, but also barring a large portion of what it means to be alive in a blissful sense.
All of that for the possibility of delaying death by a few years. We might be delaying physical death, but in the process we bring about a slow and agonizing spiritual death in our collective selves.
Life as a Grandiose Game
The more we cling to a desire for control, the more we box ourselves into the neat labels and categories we’ve arbitrarily chosen as safe and desirable. These labels are the foundations of the ego - the mask society has imposed on us and which we have no reason to trust other than its being familiar. Is following in the footsteps traced for us by society truly safer than tracing our own path? Let me answer by a question: is there a way in which you can conceive life as ultimately being safe? Is safety to be limited to the avoidance of death as a physical phenomenon?
The magic of life is, I believe, to be fully experienced only through letting go of the boundaries and controlling mechanisms we’ve been imposing on ourselves. Life will happen, regardless of what we do - its inevitable end included. As the experience that it is, it deserves to be lived and embraced in full abandonment. That, I’ll propose, is ultimately a great and spiritual form of safety. It’s safety to be found in the comfort of a life fully realized.
Seen that way, life is a game - and whether it’s filled with misery or bliss depends entirely on how we choose to play it. By default, we accept whatever role is given to us. In doing so, we make ourselves into the one oblivious cast member, the victim in the game of candid camera. If we come to understand this, we gain the chance of becoming an active player - outsmarting the pranking camera, transforming victimhood into a whole different game: one where we let go of the fallacy that is winning.
As with any game, just how we’ll enjoy the experience depends entirely on how we choose to play. If we take things seriously and play to win, then all we’re doing is delaying gratification at the cost of ruining the present experience - for everybody. If we play simply to enjoy the play, however, then we’ll enjoy the play. It’s all in the intention.
What are your intentions in the game of life?
Salvation in Letting Go
Even in what seems like the gravest and most serious moments of life, the deepest frustrations or angers, the ultimate source of that frustration and anger is to be found nowhere else but within ourselves.
We’re frustrated because we believe we should be somewhere we’re not - we should be winning more, losing less, etc. etc. We choose to view the grass as being greener on the other side of the fence, in utter forgettance that the grass is perfectly fine on this side. We constantly aim for perfection, a fancified form of nagging criticism - but what does perfection even mean in the grand scheme of things?
If we are victims then, it’s not of each other - it’s of ourselves. It’s because we’ve convinced ourselves that we should have more and that we need to be better that we come to perceive life as not being as good as it should be. Within that train of thought, the idea of self-improvement is often just a form of self-criticism in disguise: we want to improve not because it’s fun to improve, but rather because we’ve chosen that what we are right now isn’t good enough. Come the desired improvement, follows the surprise: whatever we’ll be tomorrow will still be ripe for improvement (perfection having no end) - leading the way for a life-long pursuit of greener ego-grass.
Make no mistake, the pursuit of self-improvement is but a fabulously hypocritical expression of our collective ego, camouflaged under the guise of the most valiant of intentions: that of making the world a better place. Yet why should we make the world a better place if all we’ll do is continue criticizing whatever it’ll become, as if it hadn’t changed at all?
As we engage in these beliefs, we resist life as it is now. We live in a fantastic future that’s never to come for the simple reason that we never allow it to. We push and push bliss out of the present and into the imaginary nature of future times. When we do this, we resist reality and we resist ourselves. We turn into our very own tyrant and victim. If you’re going to blame God, then take a good look in the mirror and at your very own divine creation.
The notion of winner in the game of life is deeply attached to the role that’s been assigned to us. Achievement - in the form of social popularity, monetary gain, or educational success - is another one of those completely artificial constructs. It begs to ask ourselves: what do we really want out of life? If we choose money as the priority, then it follows that happiness comes second - and therefore becoming rich might also bring complete misery in one’s life. If we want happiness - then we have to accept that it might require giving up on financial and professional success entirely.
The alternative - the refusal to make a clear choice in becoming conscious that we can’t have it all, or that there’s absolutely no sense in having it all - is the path to self-torture. It’s what Buddhism calls grasping or clinging. It’s desiring what we can’t have - or more correctly, what we don’t already have. But there’s really no difference between the two: whatever we can have, we already have.
Now, it begs me to ask: if you look at what you’ve considered success for yourself in life - is that something which you’ve crafted on your own, or is it something that came naturally with the role that was cast onto you?
If there’s a point to be made here, it’s that the definition of success in one’s life is typically connected to the personality/role/identity that’s been assigned to us by society - and very rarely has anything to do with what we personally conceive as beneficial for ourselves. In that, we’re quite simply conditioned by society to sacrifice our personal desires for those of society - this society which is, in itself, its very own life entity. This social entity benefits very much from enslaving us through dictating who it wants us to be. Coming to understand this dilemma is the first step towards what spiritualists call liberation.
Liberation, in the spiritual sense, signifies coming to acceptance of who we are as individuals. It’s letting go of the conditioned identity that’s been assigned to us by default. It’s taking who we are from a state of unconscious victimhood into the power that is conscious mindfulness.
Choosing Who I Am
True and meaningful freedom isn’t achieved by simply breaking out of prison. One isn’t truly free so long as the threat of recapture remains looming.
Shedding one’s conditioned ego is a greater symbol for stepping out of slavery or victimhood. It’s a first step towards taking responsibility for one’s own existence and path in life. If there’s to be free will, regardless of whether God plays dice or whether science might predict most natural events, then it lies right here in that decision towards self-responsibility.
If there’s such a thing as fate, then it remains meaningless until we set on a path that’ll allow that fate to unfold itself. If there’s no such thing as fate, then all the more reason for putting an end to society dictating how we should live our lives. Either way, the next rational step towards regaining power over our existence lies in our consciously creating our very own custom-built character in the grand play of life.
Here lies the true power of choice, the fabled free will: our individual ability to choose who we’re going to be in this life. We don’t have to let society dictate what color, age, gender, profession, or name we are. We can choose to willingly transcend these artificial constructs and come to the realization that we are who we are, and we don’t have to label that.
This moment of realization is one where the infinite potentiality of life reveals itself: we can be anyone, we can do anything - all that remains standing in our way is fear.
The True Nature of Free Will
Fear mustn’t be underestimated, but shouldn’t be glorified either. Every single great accomplishment in life is protected by fear - particularly that of choosing who you want to be. This fear is very real, and has completely valid reasons to exist: the game of life is indeed a very dangerous one. Death is sure to be waiting around the corner - it’s just a matter of when.
If I choose to let go of everything I’ve been instructed to be, then I might lose everything in the process. I may be abandoned by family, by friends, by society. I may lose my job, end up with no money - homeless, dying in the gutter.
This is the fear that keeps most of us from stepping out of our assigned roles, of risking everything to have a chance of becoming everything we truly are.
But assuming we obey the fear and refuse to move ahead, simply letting the normality of regular life continue its course - keeping us safely on the tracks of a standard guided life - what then? We’re led to somehow believe that our fate might be otherwise, that we might not die alone or in the gutter - that the material wealths we’ve accumulated in our lifetime will somehow make the end of our journey more tolerable. But that is not so. Death, however and whenever it comes, will simply be death. And everyone dies alone.
We have no control over the ultimate certainty of our impending doom. We have no real control over when and how it will consume us - any one of us could die tomorrow, or while reading this very text for all that matters. We do, however, have control over one thing - and that’s how we choose to live the present moment.
This, if anything, is the true nature of free will.