Diane's Voice

Free Will

When my daughter was in 4-year-old preschool, she had an amazing teacher who would call parents every so often just to let them know how their child was doing. The day she called us her first words were, “Christa said something interesting today.”

“Oh no,” I said.

“No! It was funny, but also really profound. She was playing with a friend, and her friend wanted to play ‘fairies.’ Christa didn’t want to play fairies, and her friend was being insistent. So Christa said, ‘I know you want to play fairies, but I don’t want to play that. And I have free will, which means I don’t have to do what you want to do. You also have free will, so you don’t have to do what I want to do. You go play fairies, and I’ll sit here and read my book.'”

I laughed. Christa is, was, and probably always will be a very independent thinker. From the time she was a toddler, her oft repeated phrase was “I do it myself.” And to be fair, she didn’t need any help. She was strong enough, smart enough, and determined enough to do anything she set her mind to.

She still is all those things. She is also a teenager now, and part of me wishes she would exercise her free will to live up to her fullest potential in something other than video games.

I remember when we met with the educational psychologist who administered her and her sister’s IQ tests. He sat us all down and said to the girls, “Your IQs put you both at genius level. This means two things–you can do anything you set your mind to, and the world is yours to lose.”

I thought that was an odd way to say it, but in some ways it’s true. When you can do anything you set your intellect to, the world really is yours to lose.

As I observe the stress my daughter is under during school days, and then watch her when the pressure is off, I have started to ask the question: would it really be so bad to lose the world?

Like my younger daughter, I experienced great anxiety while in school. It’s a wonder I stuck with it. From the time I was fifteen until I was about 23, I barely ate, threw up every morning just to calm myself down, and ended up losing easily 25 pounds a semester.

I carry a picture around on my phone of my husband and me when I was in undergrad and he was in medical school. People look at it and say, “Wow. Look at you!” I know they probably think I carry it around to remind myself of when I was young, and maybe when I was thin. They’re wrong. I carry it to remind myself that at that point I was the mentally sickest I had ever been.

When I was making myself sick with worry about school I wished I didn’t have free will. My choices seemed too vast. Should I study medicine, journalism, law, science, mathematics, languages, business, finance? Should I travel, start a business, work my way up the corporate ladder? In the end I chose to study English, then education, then become a teacher and a writer. Those were my choices, and I made them willingly, knowingly, and with great self-doubt and anxiety. In time, my career–and thus my choices–did bring me joy.

Ultimately, this is what I want for my children–for them to choose joy in their lives and their occupations. Does that mean they will have to put up with some level of stress and fear?

My life experience says yes. My faith says no. The words “Do not be afraid,” appear, in some form or another, about 365 times in the Bible. Sometimes it’s “Do not be anxious,” or “Do not be dismayed” or some other permutation of “Stop worrying, already.”

I think the Bible tells us not to be afraid so often because it also gave us the concept that generates most of our fear in the first place. Free will is terrifying from the moment it’s introduced. In the story of Eden, God creates Adam and Eve, puts them in the garden, and gives them literally one choice–to use their free will to listen to his warning and not eat from the tree, or to use their free will to defy his warning and eat. They are tempted to doubt God’s wisdom; they choose defiance; they lose Eden.

Who wouldn’t be anxious about making a wrong choice? Who reads that story and doesn’t think, “I hope I don’t lose paradise because I chose to eat an apple?”

But, of course, that’s an oversimplification. It’s not about an apple. It’s about trust. Like Adam and Eve, I can make a choice to hand my day over to a power greater than me, or I can choose to anxiously try to exert control over the minutes and hours of my life. I can choose to trust that the greatest power in the universe will work for my good if I just hand over the reins of my life, or I can choose to be the master of my own destiny and steer the ship where I want to go.

Some will choose the “master of destiny” route. And that’s okay. That’s their choice; the game they want to play. However, over the past almost-50 years of my life, I’ve learned I’m a pretty crap captain. I’ve been in charge of my own boat for decades, and in all the areas of my life I’ve tried to control I’ve ended up underemployed, overweight, and unfulfilled. When I’ve handed my life over to God, or the spirit of good in the universe, I was steered away from the world and more into my faith.

It’s my faith that led me to my husband, who has brought me love, passion, safety, comfort, and support. It’s also kept us together through some really tough times. My faith ultimately led me to leave behind the priorities the world said I should follow: I quit my job to stay home to take care of my kids. And if I thought teaching was my greatest joy, it turns out it’s an apple compared to the Eden of raising my children.

My faith has brought me to my current work, which, though totally voluntary, is the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done. All because I handed control of my life over to that power greater than me, through my belief in what Catholics call Divine Providence, but which others might understand as “the universe willing our good.”

I wonder what my life would be like now if I had believed in Divine Providence earlier, if I had listened to the Gospel of Matthew which reads,

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life . . . . Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are not you more important than they? Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span? Learn from the way the wild flowers grow. They do not work or spin. But I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was clothed like one of them. If God so clothes the grass of the field, which grows today and is thrown into the oven tomorrow, will he not much more provide for you, O you of little faith?” (Matthew 6: 25-30)

So I hope, for my girls, that they choose faith, trust, and love. I hope they are willing to follow the plan God has in store for them. In many ways this means they may have to choose to lose the world, because our world is not currently one that prioritizes faith, or trust, or love. It is trying to foster fear, anger, and hate. And every day we all have a choice–do we play the hate game or the love game? Do we seek to exert control over our lives to the point where we grow to detest all of those we can’t control, or do we hand our days over to the desire of the universe for our good? So many of us are, every day, agonizing over the choices the world wants us to make, and it’s led to division and pain. Maybe it’s time to consider choosing trust–not in government, or medicine, or religion, or any institution run by flawed human beings, but in the power of working toward the good of all people. It’s not an intellectual decision; it’s one made by the heart. And now more than ever I think we need to let our hearts guide our free will more than our minds, because while our minds lead us to fear and a desire for control we can never truly have, our hearts can keep us living in faith.

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