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The Limits of Free Will

The other day I looked in my bathroom mirror and saw my mother. My mother wasn’t really in my bathroom; she was hundreds of miles away in her own home. What I saw was a reminder of my mother in my reflection.

Upon reflection, and not just the reflection provided by the bathroom mirror, I’ve learned that I’m a lot like my mother. I’m thankful I share with her many qualities that are positive and life-giving. We share a sense of loyalty and commitment, sometimes to a fault, but nonetheless they’re essential parts of our lives. I have her work commitment, some of her sense of humor, and we both have a deep devotion to our Catholic faith and practice.

Through the years I’ve come to realize that when we had conflicts, it was mostly because our personalities clashed. We were and are much like each other. At times that worked well, other times it didn’t. Even though we’ve had many different experiences in life and even though we often perceive life and its meaning in different ways, we share enough with each other that there are more similarities than dissimilarities. I certainly enjoyed seeing her in my reflection.

Human beings like to think they are unique. We like to imagine ourselves with perhaps more freedom than the evidence would suggest and support. Regardless of how one-of-a-kind we might be, we share with members of our family certain behaviors, hereditary traits, DNA, RNA, and physical attributes over which we have no real control. We’re also more influenced by culture, context, sociology, and psychology than we may have imagined or thought possible. At the same time, we continue to learn and, hopefully, appreciate our own sense of self and direction. Part of that journey includes personally accepting all that we are, even the parts of ourselves that have been shared with us by others.

When all of this is thrown into the mix of our existence, when we learn more each day about what it means to be human, we might gain a greater perspective about free will. God gave us free will. That’s central to our understanding of our relationship with God and the role of grace at work in our lives. But our will isn’t as free as we may imagine. Said another way, we’re not as isolated as we feared, and we’re more connected than we may believe. Indeed, some decisions for which we may have assumed full responsibility aren’t as clearly ours to own as we might believe.

Just look at everyday life and the challenges that come with being connected with and dependent on things over which we have little or no control. If you smell baking bread and Grandma’s house comes to mind, you have no more control over that memory popping up than you do over the color of your eyes. On a deeper level, when you’re dog-tired and ultra-discouraged and ending it all pops into your head, that’s no sin or anything to worry about. It’s a normal reaction to being tired and worn out. In another example, if you see someone attractive, it’s natural to feel physically attracted to that person, not something to feel guilty over.

Obviously, the list of examples could go on and on. What’s important is to realize that your free will may not be as great as you think it is. This is especially true for those who suffer from scrupulosity. One of the symptoms and sufferings that accompany those with scrupulosity is an exaggerated sense of responsibility and free will. In the examples in the previous paragraph, a person with scrupulosity may conclude that he generated the thoughts of grandma’s house, suicide, or lust. These thoughts are natural and out of your control. Free will doesn’t come into the equation at all.

When I looked at myself in my bathroom mirror and saw my mother looking back at me, I was merely experiencing further understanding and appreciation into who I am. Of course, being human includes exercising free will responsibly. But just as important is to learn, accept, and appreciate aspects of ourselves that are simply part of who we are: spiritual, grace-filled children of God. Reflect on that.

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