Free will? Really? Do we have it and what does it really mean?
Through our recent Daily Dvar readings and as exquisitely expanded upon by last Shabbat’s sermon, we have been hearing of Pharaoh’s choices when it came to letting our people leave Egypt. And we’ve seen the consequences of the delay of his decision to finally do so. Pharaoh had the choice to free the slaves and avoid the dire results, and yet he chose not to over and over again.
At our virtual oneg we discussed the possible reasons Pharaoh exercised his free will in this way. A possibility we explored was that he didn’t have the mental or emotional capacity to do otherwise. So Pharaoh had free will but were his choices limited or influenced by his lack of humility, need for power, greedy nature, societal pressure? We are given free will, and yet, depending on our emotional wiring we may not be able to make the best choices.
At oneg we discussed even further how a person with PTSD may react very differently in stressful situations than one who does not suffer from this often debilitating condition. He or she may perceive the situation and make choices completely differently than someone without PTSD. Even just based on life experiences or emotional state another person may perceive the same situation quite differently seeing his or her choices framed with possibilities and potential results not seen by another person.
As followers of Yeshua we know we are to put ourselves in our brothers’ and sisters’ shoes in our interactions, even moreso if the situation is challenging. In noodling this around I thought about the socks, or lack thereof, that one wears with those shoes.
Are the socks too thick and make the shoes hurt like the constant pain the other may feel? Too thin so the shoes are hard to walk in without slipping, causing inexplicable missteps? Are there no socks resulting in blisters, painful wounds? Are there holes in the socks so the woundings are unpredictable like their reactions? Do the socks rub over time so the pain builds just as reactions may worsen over time? Is it raining or snowing making the shoes slippery, wet, even more uncomfortable, life seeming out of control? How aware are we of what it really feels like to walk in another’s shoes even when we think we are trying to do so?
Just as socks, or lack thereof, in shoes, we and our brothers and sisters experience life through our individual filters which have been shaped by nature and nurture. To the extent life has dealt heavier blows, our abilities to exercise free will can be dramatically impacted. This awareness by those who are in relationship or interactions with another can help us to do so with even deeper love and kindness.
Have you ever had a conversation with someone and don’t know what you said that triggered the bad reaction? Is it especially confusing when you may have said something like that before and it didn’t light a fuse or hurt the person’s feeling or be taken the wrong way? Have you ever felt annoyed by something one day but on another day the same words or acts didn’t bother you at all?
These questions illustrate our humanity. Our life experiences, emotional and mental health, even lack of sleep, are factors that influence our words, our abilities to act and react, and therefore, our ability to make choices, our “free will”. Just as what’s inside our shoes can hurt and wound, so too our general well being affects our choices which determine our life’s journey, and our ability to interact with others with love.
Just as the weather affects our shoes, so too the physical, social, and societal environment of the world in which we live affects us, perhaps even more profoundly. Stressful times, such as now, raise our baseline stress levels, so that we have less bandwith to deal with the individual challenges we all face daily.
Sparing you the details, recently I had a run in with another teacher who felt I should have ended my dance kickboxing class earlier to give her more time to set up for her class which starts after mine. She was right and I apologized. Nevertheless, she was angry and said some hurtful things. A couple days later I ran into her and it was clear she was avoiding me so I went up to her and said, “I’m not mad at you,” to which she had a look of shock on her face. She really thought I was going to fight with her! As I apologized further and said I’m good, let’s get past this, she was so relieved. And I was so surprised, not only at her initial misplaced anger but even moreso at her assumption of fear that I was angry with her (!) and that I would want to fight with her.
This woman teaches a class on how to overcome back pain which she had suffered for 30 years and now is pain free. Nevertheless, emotionally she is probably still healing. In putting myself in her shoes I not only had to understand why it would be helpful to have more time for her to set up for her class, but in the angry way in which she spoke to me, I had to remind myself to feel the pain she had felt for so many years from which she must still be healing, the socks in those shoes. She did not yet have the choice, the “free will” ability to speak to me with kindness for she is still healing. With this realization I was enabled to feel kindness toward her.
Thinking of how comfortable our brothers and sisters are in their shoes helps us to make better choices as we interact with them with our choice of words and actions. As we do so we gain a deeper understanding of our own inadequacies helping us to choose better socks and shoes for our own walk with Him.