Monday, January 05, 2009

Free will's best use. . .

"To many people, free will is a license to rebel not against what is unjust or hard in life but against what is best for them and true."

Dean Koontz,
The Darkest Evening of the Year

Those words rose off the page as I read. What a line!

How many times have I seen their awful truth lived out among young and old, friends and strangers, especially the poor.

I can't explain all of the reasons back of this social phenomenon. And, while the principle doesn't apply to everyone, there being numerous notable exceptions to its harsh truth, I can't count the times I've seen the reality at work.

It is as if a strange power works in the inner city among the poor.

Rising out of a conspiracy that intensifies the negative impact of

. . .substandard housing arranged row upon row, street by street;

. . .failing public schools that remain the only option for the children of the poor;

. . .code violations that go ignored;

. . .crimes that go unattended, except in the case of drug abusers who need treatment but get prison;

. . .diets bounded by a lack of access to nutritous food products at reasonable prices;

. . .too few jobs that pay far too little to make life work;

. . .an unrelenting message that nothing can really change and the fact that those who make the decisions about policy and resource allocation always find a reason to vote against those at the bottom and the edges.

After a while, after a generation or more, it is hard to move forward in a positive manner.

Result: It is as if people believe the lies told against them, about their true selves and, in response, set about in all sorts of self-destructive acts of free will, often almost to prove up the negative assessments. Rather than rising up against the forces, circumstances and rules of their oppressors and critics, they freely strike out at themselves and their peers, making life all the more difficult.

I think of a wonderful 15-year-old girl who was about to deliver her first baby. "Now I'll have someone to love me and someone to love, Mr. Larry," she explained to me as if she had hit upon her destiny.

Or, the young man hooked on drugs and trying to live beyond his criminal past, unable to make any progress over more than a decade spotted with the same sort of self-defeating rebellion, as if he was living out some prediction about his life he had grown up expecting to come true.

My list, virtually endless.

People who haven't been "there" don't get it and, frankly, don't really seem to want to understand, often using the negative track records of such personal behavior as evidence of the truth of their stereotypical methods of assessing people. Once in place, this negative feedback loop becomes nearly impossible to interrupt.

The sad, powerful truth behind Koontz's line is the reason why community building and including individuals intimately in the life of a group are so central to any effective effort at urban renewal. People who are "hooked" on a group, who belong to something beyond themselves have a much greater chance when it comes to the productive use of free will. When poor people get organized, the world changes. Leaders emerge. Attitudes change. Sometimes anger rises. Health seems within reach.

Nothing is easy about the task, but communities can organize against the forces that defeat and press them down. Communities call individuals to account, to a higher standard of performance, to something better, and not in some limited, narrow, moralistic manner, but in ways that actually change the world. Communities drive change both in their environments and in the lives of their members.

Free will is an incredible gift whose best and highest use is discovered in that which is both best and true for individuals and for their groups.

It is why we work.



Daniel Gray said...

I don't really believe in free will or determinism, but I think that the truth lies somewhere in between (slanted towards determinism). I would best describe it as "people are largely products of their environment."

Too often, we see the free will debate through the lens of the poor community, rather than our own. I didn't get to where I was today purely out of my own choice and ability. College and higher education were expected in my family and community. There were a lot of bad "choices" that I could have made, but people in my environment were constantly modeling and encouraging the right choices.

Our environment is the biggest influence in our lives, both for those who succeed or fail. Rather, than feel defeated by this idea, I think it should give us hope. It means we need to develop a stronger sense of community responsibility, accountability, and discipleship.

Dr. Beck (Psychology professor at ACU), has a really good series on his blog which breaks down the notion of free will, if anyone is interested.

Anonymous said...

Of course there is no such thing as "perfect" free will. I will never be Chancellor of Germany or CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Of course our wills are circumscribed by circumstances. That is not the same thing as saying we do not have will/choice within our limits. Do I have more options than someone in poverty? You bet. But to suggest that someone in poverty doesn't have/make choices is to (1) dismiss the accomplishment of someone who has escaped poverty; (2) leave someone still in poverty in a hopeless situation (if it is all pre-determined).

I think the nature/nurture argument is false, even chimeric, as is "pure" free will versus determinism. It is always both, just perhaps in different measures depending on the person and circumstance. That's why we have to address both or fail.