How People Change – Allen Wheelis

Chapter III
Freedom and Necessity

The realm of necessity, therefore, must comprise two categories: the subjective or arbitrary, and the objective or mandatory. Mandatory necessity-like natural law which cannot be disobeyed-is that which cannot be suspended. It derives from forces, conditions, events which lie beyond the self, not subject to choice, unyielding to will and effort. “I wish I had blue eyes,” “…wish I were twenty again,” ” … wish I could fly,” “…wish I lived in the court of the Sun King.” Such wishes are futile, choice is inoperative; the necessity impartially constrains. And since it cannot be put aside there’s not much arguing about it. “If you jump you will fall-whether or not you choose to Fly.” There is consensus, we don’t dwell on it, we accept.

Arbitrary necessity derives from forces within the personality, but construed to be outside. The force may be either impulse or prohibition: “I didn’t want to drink, but couldn’t help it.” That is to say, the impulse to drink does not lie within the “I.” The “I,” which is of course the locus of choice, does not “want” to drink, would choose otherwise, but is overwhelmed by alien force. “I want to marry you,” a woman says to her lover, “want it more than anything in the world. But I can’t divorce my husband. He couldn’t take it . . . would break down. He depends on me. It would kill him.” Here it is loyalty, caring for another’s welfare, which is alleged to lie outside the deciding “I,” which therefore cannot choose, cannot do what it “wants,” but is held to an alien course. As though she were saying, “I do not here preside over internal conflict, do not listen to contending claims within myself to arrive finally at an anguished, fallible decision, but am coerced by a mandate beyond my jurisdiction. I yield to necessity.” The issue is not one of conscious versus unconscious. The contending forces are both conscious. The issue is the boundary of the self, the limits of the “I.”

Arbitrary necessity, therefore-like man-made law is that which may be suspended, disobeyed. When dealing with ourselves the constraining force seems inviolable, a solid wall before us, as though we really “can’t,” have no choice; and if we say so often enough, long enough, and mean it, we may make it so. But when we then look about and observe others doing what we “can’t” do we must conclude that the constraining force is not an attribute of the environing world, not the way things are, but a mandate from within ourselves which we, strangely, exclude from the “I.”

The lady who “wants” to marry her lover but “can’t” divorce her husband might here object. “When I said ‘can’t,”’ she might say, “it was just a way of speaking, a metaphor. It meant that staying with my husband represents duty, not desire, that’s all. In’ a theoretical way I could choose … I know that. But it’s just theoretical. Because … you see, the conflict is so terribly unequal, the considerations that make me stay, that absolutely demand I stay with my husband … they’re so overwhelmingly strong, there’s really no choice. That’s all I mean.”

We make serious record of her objection. In passing we note with surprise that the inequality of the conflict leads her to conclude there is “really no choice,” whereas this same circumstance would have led us to say rather that the choice is easy, one she might arrive at promptly, with the conviction of being right.

It’s only a metaphor, she says. In some theoretical way, she says, she is aware of choice. Perhaps. But we have doubt. In any event we must point out that she specifically denies this choice for which she now claims oblique awareness, that she locates the determining duty outside the “I” . and its “wants.” And we might add that if she continues such metaphorical speech long enough she will eventually convince even herself; her “theoretical” choice will become more and more theoretical until, with no remaining consciousness of option, it will disappear in thin air. She then will have made actual something that may once have been but a metaphor. Nothing guarantees our freedom. Deny it often enough and one day it will be gone, and we’ll not know how or when.

Objective necessity is not arguable. My lover dies, I weep, beat my fists on the coffin. Everyone knows what I want; everyone knows that nothing will avail, no prayer, no curse, no desperate effort, nothing, that I shall never get her back. When there is argument about necessity, the alleged constraint is arbitrary, subjective. A house in flames, a trapped child, a restraining neighbor: “You can’t go in! It’s hopeless.” I see it differently: I can go in-if I have the nerve. There may be a chance. It’s not clear whether the situation permits or proscribes; the difference of opinion indicates that the necessity at issue is arbitrary. My neighbor’s statement is more plea than observation; he asks me to perceive that the contemplated action is precluded, to “see” that there is no choice. By so deciding I can make it so. If I agree it is impossible, then-even if mistaken-my having arrived at that judgment will, in a matter of moments, make it true. Our judgments fall within the field of events being judged, so themselves become events, and so alter the field. We survey the course of history and conclude, “Wars are inevitable.” The judgment seems detached, as if we observed from a distant galaxy; in fact it comes from within and, like all judgments, it may be mistaken. It is not inert, :it has consequences, shapes action, moves interest and behavior from, for example, the politics of dissent to the connoisseurship of wine; and so chips off one more fragment of the obstacle to war, thereby makes more likely the war which, when it comes, will vindicate our original judgment and the behavior which issued from it. So we create the necessity which then constrains us, constrains ever more tightly day after day, so vindicating ever more certainly our wisdom in having perceived from the outset we were not free. Finally we are bound hand and foot and may exclaim triumphantly, how right we were!

The areas of necessity and of freedom vary in proportion to each other and in absolute measure. They vary, also, from person to person, and, within the same person, from time to time. Together they comprise the total extent of available experience the range of which is a function of awareness and concern.

Adolescence, traditionally, is the time of greatest freedom, the major choices thereafter being progressively made, settled, and buried, one after another, never to be reopened. These days, however, an exhumation of such issues in later life has become quite common, with a corresponding increase in freedom which makes life again as hazardous as in youth.

Throughout our lives the proportion of necessity to freedom depends upon our tolerance of conflict: the greater our tolerance the more freedom we retain, the less our tolerance the more we jettison; for high among the uses of necessity is relief from tension. What we can’t alter we don’t have to worry about; so the enlargement of necessity is a measure of economy in psychic housekeeping. The more issues we have closed the fewer we have to fret about. For many of us, for example, the issues of stealing and of homosexuality are so completely buried that we no longer have consciousness of option, and so no longer in these matters have freedom: We may then walk through Tiffany’s or go to the ballet without temptation or conflict, whereas for one to whom these are still live issues, the choice depending upon a constantly shifting balance of fallibly estimated rewards of gain or pleasure as against risks of capture or shame, such jaunts may entail great tension.

Tranquillity, however, has risks of its own. As we expand necessity and so relieve ourselves of conflict and responsibility, we are relieved, also, in the same measure, of authority and significance. When there arises then a crisis which does not fall within our limited routine we are frightened, without resources, insignificant.

For some people necessity expands cancerously, every possibility of invention and variation being transformed into inflexible routine until all of freedom is eaten away. The extreme in psychic economy is an existence in which everything occurs by law. Since life means conflict, such a state is living death. When, in the other direction, the area of necessity is too much diminished we become confused, anxious, may be paralyzed by conflict, may reach eventually the extreme of panic.

The more we are threatened, fragile, vulnerable, the more we renounce freedom in favor of an expanding necessity, Observing others then who laugh at risk, who venture on paths from which we have turned back, we feel envy; they are courageous where we are timid. We come close to despising ourselves, but recover quickly, can always take refuge in a hidden determinism. “It’s all an illusion,” we say; “it looks like their will and daring as against my inhibition and weakness, but that must be illusion. Because life is lawful. Nothing happens by chance. Not a single atom veers off course at random. My inhibition is not a failure of nerve. We can’t see the forces that mold us, but they are there. The genetic and experiential dice are loaded with factors unknown, unknowable, not of our intending, are thrown in circumstances over which we have no vision or control; we are stuck with the numbers that turn up. Beware the man who claims to be captain ofhis soul, he’s first mate at the very best.”

The more we are strong and daring the more we will diminish necessity in favor of an expanding freedom. “We are responsible,” we say, “for what we are. We create ourselves. We have done as we have chosen to do, and by so doing have become what we are. If we don’t like it, tomorrow is another day, and we may do differently.”

Each speaks truly for himself, the one is just so determined, the other is just so free; but each overstates his truth in ascribing his constraint or his liberty to life at large. These truths are partial, do not contend with each other. Each expresses a quality of experience. Which view one chooses to express, to the exclusion of the other, better describes the speaker than the human condition.

In every situation, for every person, there is a realm of freedom and a realm of constraint. One may live in either realm. One must recognize the irresistible forces, the iron fist, the stone wall-must know them for what they are in order not to fall into the sea like Icarus-but, knowing them, one may turn away and live in the realm of one’s freedom. A farmer must know the fence which bounds his land but need not spend his life standing there, looking out, beating his fists on the rails; better he till his soil, think of what to grow, where to plant the fruit trees. However small the area of freedom, attention and devotion may expand it to occupy the whole of life.

Look at the wretched people huddled in line for the gas chambers at Auschwitz. If they do anything other than move on quietly, they will be clubbed down. Where is freedom? … But wait. Go back in time, enter the actual event, the very moment: they are thin and weak, and they smell; hear the weary shuffling steps, the anguished catch of breath, the clutch of hand. Enter now the mind of one hunched and limping man. The line moves slowly; a few yards ahead begin the steps down. He sees the sign, someone whispers “showers,” but he knows-what happens here. He is struggling with a choice: to shout “Comrades! They will kill you! Run!” or to say nothing. This option, in the few moments remaining, is his whole life. If he shouts he dies now, painfully; if he moves on silently he dies but minutes later. Looking back on him in time and memory, we find the moment poignant but the freedom negligible. It makes no difference, we think, in that situation, his election of daring or of inhibition. Both are futile, without consequence. History sees no freedom for him, notes only constraint, labels him victim. But in the consciousness of that one man it makes great difference whether or not he experience the choice. For if he knows the constraint and nothing else, if he thinks “Nothing is possible,” then he is living his necessity; but if, perceiving the constraint, he turns from it to a choice between two possible courses of action, then-however he choose-he is living his freedom. This commitment to freedom may extend to the last breath.
Chapter VII
The Upward Spiral

In a condition of struggle and of failure we must be able to say “I must try harder” or “I must try differently.” Both views are essential; neither must-take precedence by principle. They are analogous to the view of man as free and the view of man as determined. The two do not contend, but reflect the interaction between man and his environment. A change in either makes for a change in outcome. When we say “I must try harder” we mean that the most relevant variable is something within us-intention, will, determination, “meaning it”-and that if this changes, the outcome, even if everything else remain unchanged, will be different. When we say “I must try differently” we mean that the most relevant variable lies in the situation within which intention is being exerted, that we should look to the environment, to the ways it pushes and pulls at us, and in this study find the means to alter that interaction.

We try to stop smoking, try and fail, try again and fail again, and when we pause to reflect, to ask how we should understand the recurrent failure, we must regard it from both views. If we believe we cannot try harder, then we must examine the field in which the effort is being made, look for ways to diminish the obstacles against which will is pitted. If we conclude there is nothing to be altered in the field, we must go back to the possibility of augmenting intention. We cannot know the outcome in advance. If we give up, we can never know but that further trying either harder or differently-might have succeeded. If we succeed, the last move is likely to take all the credit. “I tried will power for years,” one man will say, “and I can tell you it doesn’t work. But when I left my desk in that travel agency and took a job on a ranch-right away I stopped. No sweat.” “I tried all kinds of tricks,” another man will say, “smoking substitutes, pills, poisoned cigarettes, not going to cocktail parties … all delaying tactics. Finally I got sick of it and asked myself straight out, ‘Listen, you jerk! Do you mean it or not?’ Then I meant it, and then I stopped.”

There is a fundamental difference between such questions as “What is the nature of electricity?” and “What is the nature of man?” In the former a high degree of objectivity, though never absolute, may be maintained; a scientist who likes electricity may concur with one who is afraid of it. No such objectivity is possible concerning the nature of man; for the inquirer is part of the object of inquiry, and his purposes affect what is found. If, therefore, we are to have rational discourse about man we must know the context in which our questions arise, whether they refer to individuals or to societies, and the purposes and assumptions of the questioner.

A black youth, gun in hand, cowers in the darkened doorway of a locked store. The police officer, gun in holster, comes toward him. “Stay away from me, pig!” “Drop that gun, punk.” “Stop! Pig!” “Drop that. … ” The shot kills the officer, and four months later the black youth stands in court. He has no gun now, is wearing a jacket and tie, is being judged. Judge on the bench, jury in the box, bailiffs, clerks, security officers, the public in attendance all the procedures of hearing evidence, of establishing facts, of recording testimony, of taking an appeal. Testimony is heard. Witnesses establish that the defendant fired the fatal shot. Psychiatrists state that he is and was sane, that is, knew the nature and consequences of his act.

Before a verdict is rendered, the defendant speaks in his own defense. Let us ascribe to him unlimited verbal and logical ability in order that we may imagine all possible modes of defense.

“The cause of crime,” he might say, “is poverty. ‘Inescapably, the poor commit crimes,’ writes Richard Harris, ‘sometimes out of resentment, sometimes out of laziness, or sometimes out of need, but most of all because they live in a society where they find little besides poverty, sickness, and violence and are rarely exposed to any traditional moral standards. Today, most of those who commit the crimes that are most feared-assault, rape, murder-are black. . . . If a third of all young black men cannot get work and cannot earn enough money, say, to buy a suit of clothes or even enough to take a girl out for a movie and a glass of beer, they are likely to steal. And if they have little hope of ever getting a decent job, they will likely turn to drugs to ease their frustration and bitterness. Then, of course, they will have to steal more. Since very little is being done to provide training or work for them the results seem inevitable,” I, Your Honor, am a victim of this neglect. I have been unable to obtain work. I have lived for years in an overcrowded and rat-infested tenement. I am unmarried because I have never had enough money to take a girl to the movies or out for a beer, and I see little prospect of my ever being able to support a family. These circumstances so embittered me that my action was inevitable.”

The judge, if we ascribe to him not only a sense of fairness but an equal ability in logic, might reply as follows:
“There is merit in what you say, and I am in sympathy with the tenor of your remarks. I must point out, however, that you are calling upon this court to make a judgment upon society and, in consequence of that judgment, to find you innocent. Although the judgment on society which you propose may be just, this court is not empowered to make it. Your remarks, therefore, in this context are irrelevant.”

The defendant is silent, then with a devious expression speaks as follows: “Many eminent thinkers take a rather different view of the problem of crime,” he says. “The solution, they say-again I quote Richard Harris-‘lies in enacting stricter new laws, applying unused old laws, imposing longer sentences, and making prisons so disagreeable, despite all the current talk about prison reform, that their occupants won’t want to be sent back to them once they get out. For some years, Richard Nixon has been the leading proponent of this view. In the 1968 presidential campaign, he repeatedly called for a crackdown on lawbreakers, and offered his solution: “If the conviction rate were doubled in this country, it would do more to eliminate crime in the future than a quadrupling of the funds for any governmental war on poverty.” ‘ As Your Honor, more than anyone else, is aware, such recommendations have not been followed. Capital punishment has virtually disappeared, and a reasonably intelligent young black man such as I, particularly one gifted with my verbal ability, can be certain of a light sentence, can know that soon he will be out on parole. Realizing this, I lacked sufficient counter motivation to oppose my motive to steal and to kill. Society is at fault, having failed to generate effective inhibitions.”

“I am somewhat less in sympathy with this view,” the judge replies. “Its merit, however, or lack of merit, need not detain us; for, like the former view, it is an indictment of society. I must remind you again, with diminishing patience, that this court is not empowered to judge society and that any judgment you might make upon it, however accurate and, in other circumstances, appropriate, is in this context irrelevant.”

The defendant becomes more serious as his jeopardy deepens. “Virtually every philosopher of the Modern Age,” he says, “has concluded that free will is but the name we give to a subjective sense of choice which has no objective reality, that the measure of freedom we ascribe to man measures only our ignorance of the forces that move us. ‘An intelligence,’ writes Laplace, ‘knowing, at a given instant of time, all forces acting in nature, as well as the momentary positions of all things of which the universe consists, would be able to comprehend the motions of the largest bodies of the world and those of the smallest atoms in one single formula, provided it were sufficiently powerful to subject the data to analysis. To it, nothing would be uncertain, both future and past would be present before its eyes.’ I am what I am, Your Honor, by virtue of all those forces which shaped me, and every transient thought and every slightest act, even that twitch of trigger finger, is the inexorable outcome of preexisting forces and so, however alterable it may appear to have been, was in fact predetermined and inalterable. I am innocent because, according to the deepest convictions of our scientific age, I could not have acted otherwise.”

“This defense,” the judge replies, “unlike your two previous efforts, is relevant. Were the court to accept your argument it would find you innocent. Or, more accurately, would rule against itself, concluding that verdicts of guilty or innocent have themselves lost meaning.

“Your defense is disallowed, however, because the court does not accept this view of man. The mechanistic model as extended to the entire universe, including ourselves, has never been accepted by anybody in his actual daily life, not even by the mechanistic philosophers of whom you speak, and no court of law certainly has ever accepted that view. We hold that you were free to pull the trigger as you did, or to drop the gun as you did not, that such freedom is at the very heart of what we believe man to be, and that no conceivable examination of forces acting upon you at that moment or at any other moment in your life, even if in fineness and precision this examination could be extended to include the coordinates and excursions of every atom in your brain, or indeed of the entire universe, could reveal evidence proving that you were compelled to do one rather than the other. We hold therefore that you were a free agent, that you could have done either, that you are the author of what you did do and so must be responsible for your act. We find you guilty.”

After a term in prison, let us assume, the black youth is determined to change-an unlikely attitude in view of the degree to which prisons are not “correctional facilities,” as they are called, but factories of crime, and assumed here only to examine the logic of attitudes toward change-and to this end has undertaken psychotherapy. He calls upon the judge, says, “In order that I shall never again commit a crime I am undertaking to find out why I did commit that one. I’m going to examine, and hope eventually to understand, not only why I pulled that trigger, but also why I was breaking into that store, in a larger sense why I became a person who steals. For although my circumstances were deprived, not everybody from such circumstances turns to crime. Why did I? What were the forces that pushed me? These things I must learn to the end that it not happen again.” The judge, without the slightest inconsistency, may endorse this view and applaud this decision.

We cannot hope to find a view of man that will be independent of the context in which we find ourselves, the purposes we follow, the assumptions we make. Sometimes it will be necessary to see behavior, individual or social, as the product of preexisting conditions, for we are indeed pushed and pulled, and if we are to increase our authority in reference to these forces we must examine them as causes. Sometimes, likewise, it will be necessary to see behavior, individual or social, as the product of unconstrained will, for we are truly free, even in situations of extreme coercion.

It should not be, therefore, that some of us such as judges and parole officers always see behavior as a product of free will, while others such as social scientists and behavioral psychologists always see it as controlled by environment, but that each of us is capable of both views, realizing that in some contexts one view is indicated, in other contexts the other, that we need never, therefore, and must not ever, assert the truth of one view to the exclusion of the truth of the other.


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