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What Is Free Will, Actually?

It is much deeper than deciding what color car to buy.

Key points

  • Real free will means making a choice aligned with our true nature.
  • Most of us make our choices based on considerations of ego: how will it make me look?
  • Choices made from a place of our authentic self will not always mean easier choices, but choices easier to live with.
  • Our world would be a better place if more people exercised true free will.
Photo by author
Source: Photo by author

American history and culture are steeped in the notion of individual liberty. Communism and socialism are dirty words, smacking as they do of dependency on another, or having another dependent upon us. We emphasize personal responsibility, personal choice, and personal freedom.

It is in this matrix that I think it is useful to consider: just what is free will? What does it mean to be free? So many of us have the external trappings of freedom but internally are slaves to image, to ego, to a life created for outside consumption that traps us in a frenetic life of overwork to make it happen.

If you look up the term “free will” you will get something that describes being able to choose without regard to outside restraints. I can become a doctor or a lawyer or a bus driver if I want to; I can choose what church I will belong to; I can marry whomever I please.

All of this is very well and good, but for most people, this level of freedom is also a burden. How do I know what profession to choose, where I should pray, whom I should marry? Yes, I do want that freedom, but I’m not sure I really know how to use it. People deal with this uncertainty by looking outward for their inward direction. What are my friends choosing? What does my family think? Do my choices look like the movie actors I see on the big screen?

It is here that I find the definition of free will I learned through my study of Jewish mysticism very helpful: Real free will is where a person has to make a decision based on the essence of who they are, not on whether they will or won’t do a particular thing. Another way of putting it would be like this: Am I making a choice based on the truth of who I am, or the truth of my ego? For the vast majority of people, the vast majority of the time, choices are made on the basis of ego: What will they think of me, how will it appear, what am I supposed to do?

Think of a time you came to a crossroads in your life, standing at a fork in the road where a decision was necessary. Were you able to listen to the “still, small voice” within and trust yourself enough to choose from that place? Or did you give in to the prevailing weather and attitudes of those around you, assuming they must be right because their views are so common or so loud?

Choosing from our essence is always the right course, not necessarily because it’s the easiest path but because if we’re aligned with our true selves then whatever difficulties arise will be ones we can meet with full integrity. It’s easier to stand up for yourself when you actually believe in what you’re saying and the choice you’ve made. Others may not understand you, may not agree with you, but they will respect the authenticity and the integrity of where you’re coming from. These choices made from our essence are the true expression of free will. I believe that a world of people exercising their free will in this way will be a much easier world for all of us to live in.

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