Friday, September 01, 2006

Free Will - a lesson taught to me by my kids

“If you choose not to decide you still have made a choice”
“Free Will” by Rush

My kids, aged 6 and 4, and I had just had a really great time at the park. As we drove towards our house, we were basking in the satisfaction of time well spent. But I’d seen us metamorphose too often from the Waltons at their best to the Simpsons at their worst to be complacent. Right then I could even picture what would happen if fate was left to take its course. In the nick of time, it occurred to me that sharing a thought experiment with my kids might just make a difference.

“I can see the future …”, I announced dramatically as we turned into our road.

“I see you both rushing to the front door. You are fighting with each other to get there first. You both get upset, even more so when you try to tell Mummy about your adventures at the same time. And you know what happens next? Rather than being interested in what you are saying, as you’d hoped, she tells you off for squabbling. In ten minutes time, we will all be miserable.”

“But you know it doesn’t have to be like that.” I added, almost as an afterthought. “I can see another future. Instead of rushing to the door, you follow me quietly out of the car. Then you take it in turns to tell Mummy. This time, she is interested in what you are saying. In ten minutes time we will all be as happy as we are now.”

“Which future would you like?” I ask. “It’s up to you.”

“The first one!” my 6-year-old replied, inevitably. But that didn’t discourage me. And sure enough, reality turned out to be closer to my second alternative. Doh! I’m not Homer Simpson after all…

OK, enough of my minor child-rearing successes, what’s this got to do with free will? Only this. Much of the time we operate on autopilot, not really thinking about how to make ourselves and those around us happy. We act on instinct, much like my kids rushing to the door. Yet instinct and autopilot often let us down. You don’t need a sixth sense to know that an unkind word to your partner, or slouching in front of the television all night, isn’t the way to go – but that’s the route autopilot can take you. Moment-to-moment mindfulness of the dangers of autopilot and of the option to act instead on wise choices gives you the sort of free will worth having.

So why not try it out for yourself today? What route is your autopilot setting you on in life? Does autopilot always make you happy? What would you like to happen instead? How can you make that happen? Of course, you don’t have to ask yourself any of these questions. You can leave it up to good old autopilot. It’s up to you. But – as the song says - if you choose not to decide you still have made a choice.