In the age old question of nature vs. nurture, where does free will come into play? Clearly, we can’t choose our genetic, biologocal, or physiological characterisitics. Nor do we choose our early childhood experiences. But we choose our jobs, spouses, friends, and how we spend our time. Our choices are not unlimited, but conditioned, among other things, by other choices we’ve made.
Some people would blame a person’s moral shortcomings on an unfortunate childhood or a miserable job or an unhappy marriage. However, regardless of what experiences may have influenced one’s present state, every individual is ultimately responsible for their own life. That’s what it means to be a human being.
If only we could fashion ourselves out of pure will, we could be whatever we want. But we don’t create ourselves in a vacuum. Like water running over rock, every day of our lives, every experience we have, contributes to shaping who we are. When we allow ourselves to be molded by experiences that are not of our own choosing, in ways not conditioned by our own will, we end up becoming someone we never intended to be.
We can’t choose every experience that happens to us, but we can choose how we respond to it, and what we learn from it. Sometimes it isn’t possible to walk away, and an experience must be endured. Enduring a devastating experience can make a person either stronger or weaker, depending on how they deal with it. But it’s our everyday lives that shape us the most, and make us who we are.
Humans are very good at adapting to our environment. Too good, in fact. We do it instinctively, unconsciously allowing our environment to redefine us. The danger is, if we aren’t conscious of the environment in which we spend most of our time, and what behaviors it rewards and punishes, we may adapt in ways we never foresaw, and become someone we didn’t anticipate.
How does one become one’s self, rather than some random person defined by happenstance? By exercising our will. — Not by exerting our will over others, but over ourselves.
- We can choose the way we think and feel in response to external stimuli. For example, instead of thinking like a victim and feeling resentment, we can analyze how the situation came about and what options we have to alter or avoid it in the future.
- We can choose our behavior. Instead of acting/reacting in our habitual ways, we can consciously behave as the person we define ourselves to be.
- We can remove ourselves from a situation that cultivates the characteristics we want to overcome, and find or create a new situation where we can cultivate the traits we choose to hone.
Nietzche said “Become yourself.” Each of us can choose to be the author of our own life, or we can let our lives happen to us and live with whomever we happen to become.