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December 2001
Volume 9, No. 6

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Can We Teach Free Will?

By Dr. Renée Fuller

Copyright © 2001

I woke up that morning as grumpy as can be. I disliked everyone and everything– from the furniture in the bedroom, to my neighbors, to sundry friends who came to mind, to family members. I even disliked my dog! I was snarling at the world. It wasn’t until the second cup of coffee that a contrary voice in my head said, ?What set you off on this rampage?? However, search as I might, I couldn’t find the cause.

Was I going to spend the rest of the day living with what was developing into a hate for everything and everybody? But how to ?Snap out of it!?? Besides, I was feeling real satisfaction in ruminating over my justified reasons for being angry at the world. The mood gods, be they hormones or whatever had taken charge of me. Negative was going to be the watchword for the day.

Gradually, amidst the swirling mass of pessimistic thoughts, an awareness of the person I want to be took hold. Did I not believe that: “If you think the world is an ugly place, then change it. You share in the responsibility of what goes on around you. And it begins with ‘you are responsible for your own thoughts, your own actions.’”

So gritting my teeth I growled at myself ?Make the sun shine on your thoughts. Hurry up, make the sun shine on your thoughts.? I deliberately tried to bring to mind happy occasions with friends, with family, with my dog. Of course the ugly thoughts kept intruding. There always are so many justified reasons to be angry, to rage about what happened in the past, to be irate about what’s going on in the present. But by resolutely making the sun shine on the bleakness of reality, happy occasions, even cherished memories, gradually took hold. Negative, had ceased to be my watchword for the day. I have used this technique on numerous occasions. Its success, after years of practice, takes less time and effort to achieve. So when nine-year old Margot, who had been driving her parents frantic with her negativity, arrived in my office I wondered whether the same technique would work for her. Would someone so young understand how to gain control of what went on in her head? Could Margot put an end to her frequent refrain of:?no,? ?I don’t feel like it,? followed by ?I can’t help it? whenever she was told she had become ?the negative girl!?

It seemed worth a try. Grinning at the slouching nine-year old I said something like this: “Here’s an interesting method I found works for me. It’s given me the ability to have a say as to the kind of person I would like to be. You know how we sometimes feel grumpy at everything and everybody, but we don’t know where all this mad comes from? Well, here’s a technique that prevents you from being a helpless pawn of the mad. It also helps you avoid doing things that just seem to happen. I found the method a great way to gain control of what I do. It’s given me choice. And you know, being able to choose who you are and what you do, that’s big power.”

There was little change in Margot’s glum expression. So I continued with: ?Let’s have a practice session. Here’s how we begin.? I began innocuously with details about what I had for breakfast and went on to what might have been fun to eat. The sullen look persisted. However, as I gradually produced wilder and wilder ideas of possible edibles, Margot began to join in. Our productions became truly hilarious. We were overcome by giggles as our endeavors grew ever more silly. And as we laughed over our productions her eyes became shiny and alive. She looked like a different person. Then her eyes connected with mine and it was evident she had understood. Margot had gotten the feel of how she could actually control what went on in her head. I told her that she had taken the first step toward becoming a powerful woman.

But would the insight hold beyond this moment of fascination with a new-found power? Would she remember? When I saw Margot several months later she was her usual slouching self with that hang-dog look. However, on seeing my grinning face there was a change. She visibly straightened up. ?You remember?? I asked. She immediately knew to what I was referring. Her answer: ?Sometimes.?

?Shall we practice again?? We did; this time without the glum start. We both laughed a great deal as we remembered silly and affectionate incidents. Margot smiled her agreement when I said, ?We have made the sun shine on our thoughts.?

Did Margot’s parents see any change in her? When we talked several months later they stated that their daughter had become much less negative. “Yes. She really is a different person. There are times when her negativity is gone, and that’s a relief. But then there are times when it comes back.”

Margot had been right. She was remembering to use the method ?sometimes.? However, though only sometimes, she had demonstrated that even a nine-year old can begin to control what goes on in her head. She had started on the journey that would give her an option as to the kind of person she could be.

But what about when an occurrence truly justifies anger and/or concern? What about those times when the cause is not the ‘mood gods’ but something has really gone wrong? What do you tell Margot then - what do you tell yourself? On these occasions my discourse goes something like this: “You are now facing a situation which will be helped by what you learned in dealing with the mood gods. Consider those dealings as practice sessions that taught you not to collapse or go on a rampage even when the situation is serious. You have acquired the knowledge, that means the power, to be the master of your thoughts and actions. You have practiced and learned an essential life skill. Now is the time for you to use this knowledge to analyze the implications of what happened. You begin by asking, “How will this look to me a year from now, five years from now? Will it still matter? Will it still seem so awful? Will I even remember? What can I learn from this situation?”

These last questions are surprisingly effective in gaining a perspective on what happened. Yes, even later, at age ten, Margot was capable of this kind of time projection. She had become upset by what she considered a betrayal by her best friend. For days she had been in tears. Was she ready to imagine how the event would look to her in years to come? Could she draw a productive conclusion from what happened? Were such advanced thought processes, which presumably require considerable life experience, even possible for a ten-year old? After repeated effort on her part Margot succeeded. What had at first appeared as a cataclysm to her, although it continued to be painful, was gradually recognized as something she would consider rather trivial in years to come. And after some guidance she was able to draw the conclusion that she herself would never do to anyone else what her best friend had done to her. It had hurt too much. But how about the rarer instances of genuine disaster? Those are the occasions that even in future years will still seem awful. Such occurrences benefit the most from previous practice sessions in the channeling of thoughts. For these are the circumstances when it becomes imperative that our thoughts be directed to: “Can the situation be helped in any way? Is there a way out? What are the options? Is there a positive way to handle this? What can I learn from what happened? Will it help me understand how to make this a better world?”

And unmitigated tragedy? What about those occasions when there is no way out, no immediate way to change things? Alas, how does one deal with genuine tragedy? The answer seems to be that we acknowledge that we are indeed facing a genuine tragedy; meanwhile searching for possible methods to mitigate or avoid similar tragedies in the future.

But are we truly free to choose the kind of person we want to be? What of children born into poverty, crippled with horrible diseases, or living in countries ravaged by war? And those of us in fortunate circumstances, aren’t we nevertheless locked into a straight jacket of a predetermined intelligence and personality? Even our moral and ethical decisions, are they not a reflection of the society in which we live? These are more than philosophical questions. For they decide the amount of effort and conviction we put into our lives, including how much we help others. The answers to these questions will determine our destiny; for they express our belief and hopes for the future - or if we humans will even have a future.

We can look back on mankind’s recent history and see a progression toward greater freedom of choice. Not so long ago the class structure of the feudal period, still prevalent in many parts of the world, locked people into who they could be not only with reference to status but also with respect to moral, ethical and relational choices. The recent blooming of democracy has opened up status alternatives, and more important, moral, ethical and relational decisions and choices. These have required new educational approaches with increasing demands on parents and teachers. They have also created new possibilities.

An example of such possibilities is described by Clara Claiborne Park in her extraordinary book, EXCITING NIRVANA. She tells us of Jessy, her daughter, who according to the expert opinion of 40 years ago was doomed to live her life in the straight jacket of moderate-to-severe autism. Instead, after years of skillful teaching and community support Jessy gained an increasing ability to control her own behavior. Love and enormous effort opened up for her a capability, even if limited, to choose the kind of person she would be. The book is an important and powerful demonstration that even severe physiological constraints (i.e. brain damage) do not necessarily preclude the successful teaching of at least a moderate capacity for choice. And that means the possibilities for freedom of will.

It is with insanity that we are without this capacity– without freedom of will. The inability to be in control and understand what one is doing or has done is the hallmark of insanity, and is recognized by our courts as such. Accordingly the courts ask, ?Was and is there an awareness, an understanding of his/her actions?? When the answer is ?No? the person is not held responsible even for criminal behavior and hopefully is remanded to a treatment facility.

And how about depression or mania? How much choice is left to those thus afflicted? The modern chemical industry would like to claim that they have returned freedom of will to depression and mania with Prozak or other ever newer drugs that have become a booming market. Nor is treatment with herbs and pills a recent phenomenon. Medications, self or otherwise go back to the dawn of human history. In the same way talk therapy, a form of education, which seeks to teach how to achieve some modicum of free will also has a long and checkered history.

The struggle to become the masters of our fate, despite our failures, represents a basic striving of mankind.

But how about the sociopath, a disorder that once went by the label of character disorder? Our prisons are filled with such people who, on examination frequently show frontal lobe abnormalities. Can they and those with the disorder remaining outside prison walls who nevertheless create discord and dismay break their cycle of destructive behavior? Like many psychologists I used to think not, discounting the wonderful myth of Richard Wagner’s Tannhauuser, who after reveling in destructiveness finally seeks freedom from his psychopathy. Desperate, Tannhauser makes a pilgrimage to Rome pleading for redemption and forgiveness. The appalled Pope answers with, ?As this dead staff will never again bloom, so your soul can never find salvation from the consuming fires of hell!? Without hope, Tannhauser returns home and in despair falls over dead. Belatedly a messenger arrives from Rome bearing the once dead staff now covered with beautiful blooms. Redemption was to be Tannhauser’s after all.

But what would have happened had Tannhauser had to live his redemption? That would have been the difficult part.

Can people who had relished their crimes, who have become addicted to the pleasures of evil, truly change? Redemption that doesn’t have to be lived seems more theoretical than real. For many years my own experiences had been that for sociopaths a turn around was not achievable.

But then something extraordinary happened. In our experimental lab we saw how the stories in a simple reading system made it happen. Court committed juvenile offenders turned around their lives. Nor were these findings restricted to our laboratory. Others have since made similar observations - how reading the humorous but cautionary tales of the reading system had profound effects on even serious incarcerated adult criminals. That’s how I learned that redemption can become a living reality. Why and exactly how my stories were able to do this - I still do not understand. But it does tell us that it is possible to teach at least some degree of choice even to sociopaths. Free will even if limited can help supercede the neurological defects involved in character disorder.

And those of us who are not neurologically impaired, who are not insane, do not suffer from depression or mania, are not character disordered, what are the limitations on our capacity to choose? How much freedom of will do any of us actually have? To what extent can each of us determine the kind of person we will be, or want to be? The future of mankind is linked to the answers to these questions. Human destiny depends on our emergent ability to choose the kind of world that will be ours, and to teach our children how and what to choose.

Although free will can seem like a grand illusion, it is an illusion that has the power to create itself. So the answer to the question ?How much free will do we actually have?? has to be: ?As much free will as we struggle for.? Teaching this struggle for choice, for free will, is therefore the most important responsibility and purpose of parents and teachers.

Dr. Fuller is a developmental psychologist and the author of the Ball-Stick-Bird reading series - which besides helping children learn to read - focuses on character development. See her advertisement and contact information on page 7.

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