The Way of the Will: part 1

‘Will’ is a word that gets tossed around a lot: willpower, the strong-willed child, men of good will, where there’s a will there’s a way, breaking someone’s will. Does anyone ever say what will actually is? Take a moment; do you have any idea what will actually is?

  • A toddler pushes everyone’s buttons to get his own way, and we say he’s strong-willed.
  • But if a woman stops smoking, loses weight, and starts running marathons we say she has a lot of willpower.

How can an unruly 2 year old have a lot of will, but so does the disciplined athlete?

‘Will’, like ‘love’, is used for many things, some of them mutually exclusive. The Free Online Dictionary has 42 definitions for it. The definition I want, the one that makes or breaks your life, is the first:

The mental faculty by which one deliberately chooses or decides upon a course of action

The Will is our chooser. It looks at all the conflicting impulses inside of us, and decides which one of them we’re going to follow:

  • What we’re going to think.
  • What we’re going to believe.
  • How we’re going to act.

Theology tells us that we have free will. In other words, we are free to choose as we like, not constrained by fate or circumstances. Free to choose according to our desires, or according to our principles. Free to choose good or evil.

I think most people picture a sort of inner set of scales. Our desires, morals, influences, habits pile up here and there, and when the pans tip decisively one way or another—we act. Under this view we have no free will, only complex reactions to particular inputs. The danger of this determinism is that, largely, it is true for you to the extent that you believe in it. If you think you have no real control over your own actions, then guess what, you won’t. If you believe you’re a victim of circumstances, you will be. If you ‘can’t help’ your feelings, you’ll be a slave to your emotions. The extreme end lies in fatalism and apathy, but one need not go so far as that to suffer from an atrophied will.

“Unlike every other power…the will is able to do what it likes, is a free agent, and the one thing the will has to do is to prefer. “Choose ye this day,” is the command that comes to each of us in every affair and on every day of our lives, and the business of the will is to choose. But, choice, the effort of decision, is a heavy labor, whether it be between two lovers or two gowns. So, many people minimize this labor by following the fashion in their clothes, rooms, reading, amusements, the pictures they admire and the friends they select. We are zealous in choosing for others but shirk the responsibility of decisions for ourselves.”                         — Charlotte Mason

Stories dramatize the choice between good and evil (don’t give in to the dark side, Luke!), but in everyday life the number of people who deliberately, knowingly choose evil is small. Some do; they shake their fists at the cosmos in pain, and turn their backs on God and man in an orgy of angry selfishness. Much more common is to drift into an insipid, proxy evil by declining to choose at all. It’s perfectly possible to live an entire life, even a respectable one, without ever once exercising the will. Just go along to get along. Learn to behave, to do well in school, to be nice to people because it’s easier. Praise is pleasant. Being in trouble is a pain. It becomes very easy, once in the habit of not making waves, to do what everybody else is doing, think what everybody else approves of, and be a perfectly inoffensive person absolutely without any will of your own. The balance tips toward the path of least resistance and you follow it as naturally as water runs downhill.

thumb on scalesIn defiance of this, the Will puts its thumb on the scale. It weighs all considerations in the balance: desire, consequences, commands, beliefs, practicality, principles, and a hundred others. But the balance is never so heavily tilted that a sufficiently strong will cannot say, “No. These considerations may be weighty, but I choose otherwise. This I will do, that I will not.”

A sufficiently strong will—there’s the catch. Well, some are born strong-willed, and some of us aren’t. You see it even in babies. Not much we can do about it, is there?

Actually, there is. Not only can you do something about it, you must, because every day you don’t control yourself, make decisions, choose your actions—someone or something else is gaining control. You have to develop strength of will. Work on it, put effort into it. It’s not easy to fight yourself, your own lazy inclinations. It’s worth it because gains made in self-control make everything else easier.

I know I promised you last post to tell you how-to, but first we needed our what and our why. Next week I’ll talk about how to strengthen the Will—about muscles and marshmallows and Mason.

“… just as to reign is the distinctive function of a king, so to will is the function of a man. A king is not a king unless he reigns and a man is less than a man unless he wills.”  — Charlotte Mason