“I am a product of my experiences.”
Structuralism, determinism, cultural hegemony, these make me who I am. I am molded entirely by that in which I live, my culture makes me the man (or woman) I become. Were it not for that job or those friends, that teacher or those books, I wouldn’t be even remotely the same. We are flowers bending in the wind, stalks growing crookedly according to the tide of the times, growing towards the sun of cultural expectations.
This is what I hear.
“It’s my choice.”
Free will, change, individual responsibility, personal preference, these are my choices. I am molded entirely by what I choose to do, whom I choose to love, where I choose to live. Failure is a result of my choices, success because I made good decisions. Were it not for that hard work, turning that direction, paying attention to that role model, I would still be the same. I am inherently me, decided by my choices, my reactions to my experiences. We are redwoods, growing and spreading despite outside forces, free to move with them or withstand their fury, standing tall and alone.
This is what I hear.
Are these my only choices? Either put all blame on my surroundings, my parents, and my culture, or accept it all on myself? I am told I must believe either in the absolute endurance of my person, or the absolute fickleness of it. I am what I have done or I am what has been done to me. It is up to me or it is never up to me.
Brother, sister, mother, father. These cannot be our two options (though one of the two would say we do not even have the option). We cannot sail on one of these ships, for both have no hope.
The one, determinism, says that we are simply influenced. Therefore there is no hope of becoming better, of changing ourselves. I am what has been done to me. The child born into addiction has no hope of getting out, the boy born into poverty will stay poor, the woman who is objectified will stay an object.
The other, free will, says that we simply influence. It is all up to us- bettering the world, changing ourselves, saving others. Our financial situations, family structures, and emotional states all depend on what we choose. The poor are lazy, the rich are smart, the powerful are deserving. Nothing can stop you, you can do anything you put your mind to, obstacles are simply things to overcome. There is no hope of outside help- if you can’t do it, you’re just not trying hard enough.
How can we believe these? As humans, as Christians, we have to believe there is more than this. More than just our circumstances, more than just ourselves.
Determinism defies the existence of an eternal self. It says we are simply objects to be acted upon. Is there nothing that is inherently us? Inherently me? Does our choice, our action, have no real effect? This philosophy raises a generation that believes this is just the way things are- we naturally are moving towards the way things should be, progressing, evolving. No need to do anything about it.
Yet free will denies the existence of outside forces, of things bigger than simply you or me. It claims that we make our own reality, we make our own lives. Just grab on to your better life today. Try harder. You can do it.
But what if we can’t?
Perhaps there is another way. A middle ground. A place where we find both the reality of systemic outside forces and personal responsibility, a place where humans act and are acted upon, a place where we created culture and are formed by culture—this place can bring us hope. We hope to change the world, to be ourselves, and to do it together. Do not rush to blame outside forces, or take it all upon yourself. Reality is much more complicated, and much more hopeful.