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From Willful To Willing

One of the great changes in our culture over the last decades has been the shift in our understanding of will.  Psychology has grown as a field with many varying schools, but for the most part, the field does not discuss or consider the idea of will.  Starting with Freud, will was repudiated as the prime mover, and instead the focus in psyche was on various motives, libido and drives. The role of science has been, and is seen today, to help us understand these drives and urges, indeed to understand the very brain chemistry down to how the last molecule works.

Much of our scientific bent to reject will as a factor in understanding our psyches is a response to the Romantic Movement’s assertion of the individual.  The romantic will’s object was the assertion of personal individuality, if it could avoid the Scylla of megalomania and the Charybdis of guilt and despair.  The Enlightenment Movement that followed rejected an approach which seemed to glorify individual whim.   More recent writers talk of the will as life force.  These writers, whatever their language, see two aspects of will as life force:  the first is unconscious will (as seen in a small child who may be trying to pick up an object but be unaware that he has a goal) i.e. man before the Fall; and, secondly conscious will, the form in which we generally use the term for the force of our conscious actions moving us toward a goal i.e. man after the Fall.  An example of conscious will would be: I learn math to graduate from high school so I can go to college, etc.  Of course the line between what is consciously and unconsciously willed varies.  At certain times, our conscious awareness is much greater than at other times.

The problem of the will lies in our recurring attempts to apply the conscious will to those parts of our life over which our conscious will has no effect, and where our will becomes distorted under such coercion.  Here are a few examples:  I can will knowledge; but not wisdom; meekness but not humility; going to bed but not sleep; self-assertion but not courage; religiosity but not faith.  And the list goes on and on.

One explanation of all our modern illnesses “of not feeling good enough, of anxiety and depression, of addiction to substances and compulsive behavior, ” is because we are uncomfortable in our own skin.  That is, we will what we are powerless to achieve alone.  Frustration by such exertions of the will usually leads to more willfulness, which in term heightens the frustration between what is sought and what cannot be gained by the will.

The fact that we cannot necessarily will what we desire does not refute the concept of free will,  but whether free or otherwise, will is not sufficient by itself to gain the most sought human goals.  It may be too broad a statement, but it seems to me all of our psychological and addictive problems come from us trying to use our will to obtain relief from how we feel.

Happiness cannot be willed.  Happiness comes about out of a peculiar kind of relationship with our outer world; peculiar in the sense we assert ourselves in it, but we are also open to having our external reality interpenetrate us, e.g. we feel grateful for a beautiful day, we enjoy the gift of a hug from a friend, etc.

There is an expression that a child is too willful.  It carries this idea that over-exertion of will is destructive both for the child and others.

So how does this discussion of will provide practical help?  It may be that we can look closely at the use of our will and see if we are using it to move us into the stream of life or causing us to be caught in one spot swimming hard upstream and going no where.

When we have problems living in the present, these are often problems of will.  Are we using our will to try to live in the future?  Are we waiting to start life after we willpower ourselves into law school, or past the Bar, or into a job as a lawyer, or married, or being made a partner, or having a family, or getting a divorce, or retiring?  Or, are we living in regret of the past, that we didn’t try out for law review, we didn’t marry our first love, we couldn’t have kids, we got a divorce, we lost our big case, we won’t be able to retire early?  Either way, hoping to get in the future or regretting the past, relate to what we want to do or didn’t do with our will.

Like any tool, willpower is useful only for certain things.  Trying not to be chemically dependent, or trying not to be depressed or trying to make someone else happy by sheer force of will is analogous to trying to pound a nail in with a saw.  You don’t use willpower on issues over which it has little effect.

On the other hand, willingness denotes an openness to the world, to discovery and to mystery.  Willingness is a necessary attitude to confront the joy and sorrow of living, its ­­­­losses and fullness.  Willingness allows us to explore what is really under our control (not much except our own approach to life) and to simultaneously accept that most of the universe lies forever outside of our ability to influence by force.  Establishing a realistic relationship with our will is a primary task for a happy life and a necessity for anyone seeking to recover from a long-term chronic disease.  Usually the key is to move from willfulness, which if this is our primary way of responding to the world, is much like always responding at the instinctual flight or fight level  to a more conscious level of willingness, to be more open to the discovery that our lives may be vastly richer if we are open to wisdom and meaning outside ourselves.

– by Don Carroll

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