Do you Believe in Fate or Free Will?
Posted on March 1, 2019
Morpheus: Do you believe in fate, Neo?
Morpheus: Why not?
Neo: Because I don’t like the idea that I’m not in control of my life.
Morpheus: I know exactly what you mean.
In my trauma trainings, I feel like I do a pretty decent job using epigenetics and neurobiology to explain the relationship between trauma and health risk, poor life decisions, and criminal activity. However, there is a tough point many hit during this journey. If study after study demonstrate that untreated childhood trauma leads to riskier sexual behavior, drug use, criminal behaviors, poor decisions, is there a role for personal responsibility or is free will dead?
This question is one I struggled with for years. Early in my psychology education and career, I aspired to become the next great existential therapist in the mold of Rollo May or Victor Frankl. I spent my free time in college reading Nietzsche and Sartre. As an existential therapist, I imagined helping people confront their existential crisis and help them understand how each action and choice defines them as a person.
Then I sat across from my first client, a teenager who grew up in the crack epidemic in an area devastated by gang violence. It took me less than one session to realize this kid’s behavior supported actions allowing him to survive and not a logical consideration of choice and consequence. After my first day, I realized that all the kids I would work with came from broken homes, poverty, families devastated by addiction and abuse, and communities traumatized by drug epidemics and violence.
At the time, I was only three years older than many of my clients. It was like we came from two different planets. These youth survived a hell that was hard for my small-town brain to comprehend. While I could step back and see how my choices defined me, my clients’ minds were hyper-focused on surviving the next minute or trauma.
About six hours into my psychology career, my entire life philosophy met its own existential crisis! I soon saw my ability for existential reflection as a privilege gained through a healthy upbringing, safety, economic security, and an evolving understanding of my white privilege. Free will, which I previously saw as all-encompassing, seemed to shrink to almost nothing for my clients who were trying to survive their reality.
I want to explore this topic further in future posts; however; I would love to hear your thoughts. Do you believe in free will?