Do you believe you are a victim of circumstance? This attitude can develop wen you feel out of control of your life? That events and the situations around you dictate how you feel. That your appetites or fears are in charge of you rather than you being in charge of them. That you are not free to break away from their hold and that life is a powerful current that you are helpless to swim against. Many have wondered about just how free anyone is to determine one’s personal destiny. Are you a victim of circumstance or have you the freedom to transcend it?
We are all only too aware of the way personal freedom is restricted by lack of money, demands of parenting, or the economic recession, to mention just a few limitations commonly encountered in everyday life. From an academic viewpoint, scientists point out the myriad of factors which influence our behaviour and thus curb our liberty to do and be what we want. These factors include — to name just a few — your bodily constitution and family upbringing, any physical impairment, the chemical effects of medication and the social values of our culture. According to some scientists we are all each to some extent a victim of circumstance.
Yet, although the environment can be seen to determine behaviour, psychologists also talk about how we shape our own individual environment. This they call ‘reciprocal determinism’. One example is the experience of mass media. People can affect this by what video and television they individually choose to watch and what magazines they choose to read. Another example is to do with personal interactions. We have all come across those people who seem to cope well with problems. They can be easy individuals to be with because of their rewarding conduct and charming and sincere way of dealing with others. They predictably bring about a positive social atmosphere wherever they go.
In other words although the environment around them may play an important role in determining what they do, nevertheless to some extent they make this environment themselves in how they interact with it. Perhaps we have some say in controlling our lives after all.
Inner versus outer freedom
Another reason for supposing we have more chance to take control over life is the sense of inner freedom we can experience. For example how you choose to think is something you are free to inwardly do regardless of your outward activity. You can manufacture a self-fulfilling prophecy by the way you look for the worst or the best in others, or in the way you focus on the threats or the opportunities in any new challenge.
My favourite Greek once said:
“I must die. I must be imprisoned. I must suffer exile. But must I die groaning? Must I whine as well? Can anyone hinder me from going into exile with a smile?” (Epictetus)
Not even the god Zeus could conquer his inner freedom of will.
A patient of the psychotherapist Irvin Yalom had a serious physical deformity. She believed that life without a love-sexual relationship with a man was without value — that one is either coupled or one is nothing. So she shut down many options for herself including a close non-sexual friendship. Through therapy she eventually realised that although she was not free to escape her deformity, nevertheless she was inwardly free to adopt a different attitude towards it.
Illusions of freedom
We can get ourselves caught up by negative attitudes and corrupting habits. Fears and obsessive cravings can become reinforced if repeatedly adopted. The sufferer does not realise how much of life is dictated by these feelings.
Some people drift into self-centredness. They can be caught up in the desire to exercise manipulate and control, to get even with anyone who does not please them, and get hold of anything that they fancy having by foul or fair means.
When one wants to carry on in this way it seems like one is acting freely. But I would suggest that anyone who has allowed bad desires and self-delusional thinking to predominate is actually in a state of spiritual slavery. When you are carried away with delight in something it seems like you are a free person to have chosen it. But this is self-deception.
“None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)
According to philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg, real freedom is something very different. It is having the heavenly state of mind and character to be able to receive the spiritual life unspoilt by all the negative stuff that blocks out the heat of love and light of wisdom.
“Those who are free of resentful thoughts surely find peace.”
As long as we remain attached to envy, greed, resentment and other selfish attitudes we are not free to experience deep happiness. The negative stuff first needs to be set aside if we are to gain unfettered access to the divine source of all that is good.
Copyright 2013 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems