Let your life proceed by its own design.
By The Deadhead Cyclist
Free will versus fate. The debate is as fundamental as any other in the realm of human existence, and has been taken up by many of the great philosophers throughout recorded history. Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.) cast his vote in the direction of free will: “The man is the father of his actions as of children”; Augustine (355-430) tipped the scale in the other direction with his belief that all things are determined in some manner by God: “Pray as though everything depended on God”; Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) believed in free will conditionally: “A man has free choice to the extent that he is rational”; René Descartes (1596-1650) suggested that free will lies in our thoughts: “Except our own thoughts, there is nothing absolutely in our power”; and more recently, Nobel Prize winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer (1902-1991) humorously claimed, “We must believe in free will, we have no choice.”
On July 22, 1984 at the Ventura County Fairgrounds, in Ventura, CA – the Deadhead Cyclist’s pick for T.W.I.G.D.H. – Grateful Dead rhythm guitarist and frontman, Bob Weir, sang the words of the great 20th Century philosopher, John Perry Barlow: “What you are and what you’re meant to be,” and “Let your life proceed by its own design.” These lyrics from the song, Cassidy – found in its traditional ’80s slot midway through the first set – suggest a belief in a fate-based model of life in which we are shaped by a predetermined destiny, and advise us to accept and manifest the blueprint drawn up for our life.
But the same show delivers conflicting messages that suggest the issue is hardly settled. If we truly do have a destiny, where does the warning, “Keep your day job till your night job pays,” fit in? Instead, wouldn’t we be better advised to dump a job that’s merely serving as a means to an end, honor “what you are,” and fulfill what is “meant to be?” Similarly, why would anyone living their life “by its own design” entertain a secret desire to be a “headlight on a northbound train,” as was conveyed the day before from the same stage?
Like many of life’s principles, the answer lies not in “black and white” thinking, but in the nuances of the “touch of gray” in between. While living in Santa Cruz in 1979, I chose to visit friends in Boulder, CO and fell in love with the town at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. How could I have known then that making this choice would collide with my destiny 11 years later when I felt compelled to relocate to Boulder and start the Boulder Weekly magazine? In this example, free will led to fate.
On the flip side of the same coin, I can vividly recall the experience of speeding down a winding mountain road in the wee hours of the morning after being at a party, when a thought entered my mind, seemingly out of nowhere: “You’d better slow down; there might be a deer in the road.” The idea that I might hit a deer caused me to take my foot off the gas, and to my astonishment, less than a minute later I came around a sharp bend in the road to see a deer safely crossing the road. Naturally, my mind was blown, and in that moment I was taught that fate can often lead to free will.
In truth, our lives are an elegant balance of who we are intrinsically and the choices we make. As the great teacher Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (not to be confused with the musician) put it, “Life is a combination of destiny and free will. Rain is destiny; whether you get wet is free will.” Put another way, you have no control over the weather, but you can always choose to go “where those chilly winds don’t blow.”
Looking at the future as destiny leaves no room for the incentive to be the architect of your life in the present, nor does this way of thinking create accountability for moral conduct.
Sometimes, though, it’s not so easy to discern whether destiny or freedom of choice is at play. Among the great philosophers cited above, the best model for making this determination comes from René Descartes, and it merits repetition: “Except our own thoughts, there is nothing absolutely in our power.” This suggests that the key to reconciling the issue of fate and free will lies in how we think about each of them.
Here’s a good rule of thumb: It’s best to think about the past as destiny, while thinking about the future as free will. Seeing the past as free will inevitably lead to regret and unhappiness in the present, as there will always be things you wish you had done differently. Conversely, seeing the past as destiny will cause you to accept what has taken place and commit to do better in the future.
Looking at the future as destiny leaves no space for the incentive to be the architect of your life in the present, nor does this way of thinking create accountability for moral conduct; if one’s actions are predetermined, bad behavior is more easily rationalized. But thinking about the future as free will is empowering and energizing, as it leaves open the possibility that you have the ability to shape your life and yourself in the direction of your desires.
Following this logic, the older we get, the more rewarding it becomes to envision our remaining years as a matter of choice. If we are destined to become increasingly diminished with each passing year, the inclination will be to submit to our plight as being beyond our control. On the other hand, imagining health, vitality and prosperity during our later years motivates us to make the corresponding choices and be the master of our destiny.
Our experience of life is limited to the present. Memories of the past and visions of the future all take place within the context of how we think about them in the Now. Regardless of whether something that took place in the past was the result of brilliant decision making or blind luck, how you think about it has everything to do with how you feel in the present, and that feeling informs your future actions. At the end of the day, accepting your past as the path of destiny that delivered you to the life you truly want for yourself provides the confidence and the courage to move boldly ahead in the direction of your deepest desires.
As a wise (do-dah) man once said: “You’ve got to play your hand. Sometimes the cards ain’t worth a dime, if you don’t lay ‘em down.”
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