Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
I am so tired of reading that we don't have free will. That we move our hand before we consciously decide to and that the self we live with in our heads is actually an algorithm. I don't want to look at the stars through a formula, without wonder.
We do have free will, but it is much bigger than which donut do we choose. Much greater and more fundamental. We have the freedom to interpret our reality. We are born knowing very little about our world. As babies, we have to make sense of our surroundings and that is how we acquire our beliefs.
Serge King gives a good example: two kids track mud into the house and their mother gets mad. One learns that mothers get mad, so gets more and more nervous; the other that mothers don't like mud and shrugs his shoulders. We build our lives on our beliefs without realizing that they are not facts, but opinions – and opinions can be changed.
In his book Son-Rise, Barry Neil Kaufman suggests if you are stuck in your life, you look for the underlying belief, accept this isn't working and ask: is there a belief that would work better for me? This forces you to stand back and look at the situation from outside. Often there is a completely different way of seeing things. You change your interpretation, your reality and everything changes with it.
I tried this with pain, asking “Suppose this is just a feeling, like hot or cold?” The emotional charge dropped away. I still felt pain, but it was a sensation, not a punishment. Admittedly, this was during down time in the evening, not when I was trying to do anything. I could park the sensation in the background and read my book.
When we feel powerless, it is because we believe we have no choice, yet we can reclaim agency by winding back to the point where we made a choice that led us to where we are now. Often it comes down to character: we may feel unable to fight back, not because we are victims but because we made a decision way back on the kind of person we want to be – and that precludes hitting out. As Steven Covey says, “ … until a person can say deeply and honestly, “I am what I am today because of the choices I made yesterday,” that person cannot say, “I choose otherwise.”
Or, even more powerfully, we can make the choice how we react. How we explain where we are to ourselves. One of the most difficult things about living with chronic pain is constructing a story about myself to myself that isn't pathetic. So that I can live with dignity, not tears. It means changing my definition of happiness away from, say, going to the theatre with a group of friends to creating loving contacts and helping others, rather than being helped.
I may not be able to change my pain, but as Viktor Frankl says, I can change myself. And that is free will.
Foreword by Raun Kaufman to Son-Rise: the Miracle Continues, whose parents refused to accept their son's autism as a tragedy; they insisted instead that it was an opportunity.
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change by Stephen R. Covey
Who's in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain by Michael S. Gazzaniga