It is self-evident that we are born with a genome package. It is also self-evident that we are born into a pre-packaged culture. What heredity and culture have in common, is that neither of them is in our control at birth. There is one other, less acknowledged, primordial part of us: free will. Many do not accept the existence of free will. However, by definition, determinism invalidates the absolute distinction between volition and the inanimate laws of physics that cause water to boil, evaporate, or freeze.
Contrary to Salvador Dali’s claim, we have no memory of our prenatal life and little memory of our infancy. Even if memories like ‘passing through a window’ at birth are authentic, they tell us nothing about our unique individuality. (Ah, now there’s a word that has come to considerable disrepute during the last fifty years or so!)
Of course we do have some memories of our childhood, especially when they are vivid. In my early childhood, a physician whispered to my father that it would be very dangerous—perhaps fatal—for me to cry when he was to administer a serum into me by injection during a violent episode of coughing due to diphtheria. Having heard what the doctor whispered, to which he added that the family should distract me with action and noisy toys while he punctured my skin, I decided that no matter what, I would not cry. I ignored the family’s ruse, and simply ‘willed’ myself not to cry.
Though this was an example of will, that particular experience has little to do with the most significant function of will: that is, the will to understand, adjust, and consciously assemble a personality that rises above the chance factors of heredity and the pre-packaged society in which you happened to be born.
The extent to which you can rise above those factors varies according to the society into which you are born. For example, if you have the misfortune of being born in a militant communist or theocratic country, or any other prison nation, there are severe limits to your quest for individuality. Millions of people experienced that in Nazi Germany. Millions of women are experiencing that in Iran.
Public show of individual perfection of character is not possible in the fog of political coercion. Morality becomes irrelevant at the end of a gun. Yet, a plethora of stories are told about underground heroism under all forms of national prisons. Having said that, I should like to focus on free will in free nations.
Early in life, there is a critical fork in the road that separates those of us who are active from those who are passive. The latter are in the overwhelming majority. Consciously or unconsciously, they passively follow the safe beat of the societal drum. The drumbeat is at its most hypnotic from their early twenties to their early thirties.
Later in life, they strongly identify with that decade (or so) of their lives—“I’m from the sixties,” “I’m from the eighties,” and so on. Almost imperceptibly, they are frozen into ‘their’ decade in every way that is significant. They may change their wardrobe from season to season, prefer different foods and cars as they age, move about constantly from event to event, but the layers of their opinions remain as rigid as permafrost. Virtually every significant aspect of their lives is based on their decade.
I’ve lived through enough decades to observe this pandemic pattern. Perhaps its most tragic form is perpetuated in academia. It is replayed when parents who are frozen in their decade, pass their ignorance unto their children. When the children are of age for their decade, the parents are perplexed by what appears to be the new generation’s rebellion. At about that time, the parents pay lots of hard-earned money to send their children to college. There, the children believe that they are enlightened by what they are taught by professors who dazzle them with socio-political ideologies. Some of their professors are old; others are about the same age as the students. Either way, the ideologies are devastating to young minds.
In recent years, I’ve seen a very young professor on television whose ideology is as old and flawed as that of Karl Marx. He is still mired in the decades of the early twentieth century. He is a ghost of one of my old professors at New York University. I see these ghosts everywhere. He is at Harvard. He is at Cambridge. He is also part of that overwhelming passive majority, the walking unborn.
The predominant characteristic of the majority is imitative. Without guidance, their lives are embedded in pop culture; their music, their major interests, and their everyday conversations are almost exclusively current. For them, it is almost as though nothing happened before they were born. When their decade has past, it is almost as though nothing happens after it. Having been stifled early in life, their will quickly atrophies during their childhood and is snuffed out by their mid-twenties. They may continue to hear well, but can no longer listen. The profound nourishment to the soul that only the arts can provide may be closed to them forever. By early middle-age, they are left with a life that is little more than habit and nostalgia.
What separates the minority from the majority is not a difference in formal education, intelligence, or experience. The difference is that whereas the majority passively accepts Heredity and Environment as an individual’s totality, the minority actively creates an individual fashioned predominantly by Free Will.
Free will is not subordinate to genes, society, and other forces of chance. It resides within, and resists the ‘disconnect’ imposed by place and time, including one’s age. It is also our exclusive birthright and immediately accessible at all times. We have only to claim that right!
As we cultivate exquisite ethical standards principally derived from honesty and compassion, we are increasingly able to understand the essence of events, others, and ourselves like a gyroscope in a turbulent storm, and steadily maintain our course in life.