I enjoy discussing the concept of free will. As a general rule I don’t believe in it. This may sound contentious, even borderline cantankerous, but to me it’s more of a semantical thing. Because there is no actual way to identify the exact moment in time a decision was made amongst a cascade of neurotransmitters, thoughts, and muscles that constitute an action, it’s fair to say the idea that we are the conscious authors of our own behavior is nebulous at best. Do I think this means people are completely out of control of their actions and simply moving forward through a pre-determined (perhaps higher power-ordained) universe? Certainly not. But I do think it means most “choices” we make are actually confusing soups of genetic predisposition, environmental factors, and brain chemicals. And I also think there are some choices we don’t make at all.
The older I get the more I start to notice when my perceived control on a situation is slipping. For most of my adolescence and adulthood I have struggled with severe anxiety that often manifests in control obsession, fastidiousness, and bursts of rage. The rage seems to be the way my brain likes to cope with the feeling of loss of control. But I’ve historically found it very difficult to identify that moment; the moment that I switch from feeling on top of something in my life to feeling trampled by it. I perceive relative calm explode expeditiously into rage and it’s often not until I calm down, frequently amongst the wreckage of the things I’ve said or done, that I realize what triggered it. But slowly, very slowly, I have worked increasingly hard to attempt to expand timeline on that cascade of events that leads to rage; to peer into the soup and identify where my brain perceives the loss of control and begins to turn to its coping mechanism. I’ve had mixed results.
More than thoughts or emotions, physical cues are useful in identifying the switch from relative calm to rigged to blow. The usual suspects of anxiety—racing heart, flushed skin, narrowed focus—appear on the scene. But often by this point the choice to be reactive already feels made. I’m at the top of the rollercoaster, and there’s no attendant to let me out no matter how hard I scream.
All this isn’t to say I bear no responsibility for actions made in anger. I bear all of it actually. Just because we don’t feel we’ve chosen to do something consciously does not absolve us from the consequences of what gets done. But realizing how hard it is to identify a moment of choice in certain situations has so many implications for how we treat people. And how we think life treats us.
Most of the situations that feel out of control in my life are related to my anxiety and rage. But as I’ve worked harder to watch myself in those moments, I’ve developed the ability to watch myself in others as well. And I’ve noticed that some choices just really don’t feel like choices at all.
In early November I approached a house in rural mid-Michigan to make a package delivery. As I walked up the steps to the back porch, a litter of kittens descended on me. There are a lot of cats and kittens in the country. This wasn’t the first time I’d taken a few moments out of my day to scratch an ear or two. But this assault immediately felt different. One kitten, a scraggly-looking black fluff ball, climbed onto my squatted knee, looked me directly in the eyes and made his best kitten plea for attention. And just like that I felt the control slipping. I wasn’t anxious. I wasn’t becoming angry or scared. But still, I could feel my ability to make a real choice completely wither away. I told myself I would only wait approximately 30 seconds for the customer to hear me and come outside (and presumably offer me a kitten, as is expected among hosts of barn cat litters) and if they didn’t come outside it wasn’t meant to be.
But as 30 seconds turned into a minute and one minute into two, I began to feel the urge to just make off with the kitten like a thief in the night. Luckily I didn’t have to resort to a life of crime. Several seconds past when I started to really worry I wasn’t going to receive an offer for the kitten, a woman peered out her back door and then stepped outside. “I’m sorry,” I said “they’re just so cute.”
“Would you like one?” she asked, following my script exactly.
I made a show of pretending to deliberate, more for myself than for her. I tried to tell myself that the last animal I raised from infancy absolutely shattered my heart, and I was still missing a bunch of the pieces. But truly I knew that the choice had already been made. And maybe that was ok.
Months later Roland is an essential part of my daily life. Much like my dog Logan, who also seemingly landed in my lap through a series of similar non-choices, he is keeping the darkness at bay through a particularly challenging winter. His presence feels so essential to my well-being that I start to wonder if the choices we don’t make are made for us by instinct; something deep in the hindbrain that senses the need for a scenario to go a particular way and overrides normally strong logic and reasoning.
I don’t perceive my inability to make a rational choice in that moment as weakness in the face of an animal in need. As a regular rescue volunteer and pet care industry worker, I’ve encountered thousands of animals that could have easily come home with me at any moment. What I see is a sort of magic. And whether that magic lies in an instinct we don’t understand, the inherent intelligence of the material universe, or just in pure emotional intuition I don’t much care. But I do care to notice these moments and cherish them. To relinquish the control I perhaps never really had and allow life to happen.