On being ... an exercise in free will

On being … an exercise in free will

By Ingrid Sapona

The role of fate versus free will is one of the philosophical questions I’ve wrestled with for a long time. Though I certainly haven’t got it all sorted out, I had quite a breakthrough about it this week. And, as fate would have it (just kidding!), my new insights came in a round-about manner.

The other day I was reading a back issue of Writer’s Digest that had a series of articles on memoir writing. Though I can’t see myself writing one, I was interested in what people had to say about the mechanics of them. There were all sorts of ideas and exercises but one in particular got me thinking: the idea of focusing on the turning points in your life. Immediately, two or three popped into my head -- things like moving to Canada, being let go from a job, and deciding to start my own business. Definitely nothing memoir-worthy, but interesting to reflect on for a few minutes before I moved on.

Then, a couple days later while I was working out, the idea popped back into my head. Unable to shake it, when I got home I started jotting down all the turning points and events that have made my life what it is today. At first it was pretty much just a list of events, most of which longtime friends and family members could probably have listed for me. To be honest, the inventory depressed me a bit, not to mention it confirmed that there was no memoir material.

It wasn’t until I found myself thinking about how I ended up at the different turning points that things got interesting. I went back through the list and tried to label whether each turning point was a function of chance, or something I controlled.

The first thing I noticed was that nearly all the things I chalked up to chance involved some stranger. So, no “chance” lottery winnings, but also no “chance” tragedies, like earthquakes. My going to Northwestern as an undergrad is a prime example of a turning point I had always chalked up to a chance meeting I had with a news director from a local radio station. The gentleman spoke at a high school career night I went to in 10th grade. Afterward, I asked what journalism schools he might recommend and he mentioned Northwestern – a school I had never heard of.

Another good example of a chance encounter I always considered life-changing was meeting Ted (not his real name), a lawyer who quit law and started his own business as a communications consultant. Ted was living proof that it was possible to make a decent living as a business writer -- proof I desperately needed before taking the leap into business for myself. I realize that talking with someone in a field you’re interested in pursuing isn’t all that unusual. The thing is, John (not his real name) the guy who gave me Ted’s name was just someone I worked with and barely knew and who certainly had no reason to even bother asking me enough to learn of my interest in writing. But, John did ask and when I told him I liked writing, he gave me Ted’s number. It seemed my life is full of stories like that.

The more I analyzed the various chance encounters I’ve had, however, the more I realized how much influence I actually had in them happening, not to mention in the results that flowed from them. Indeed, I realized that many of the most positive turning points in my life wouldn’t have happened had I not take a risk, or been open to something new, or even just followed-up. Looked at differently, it’s interesting to think how many of the key events in my life might not have happened if I hadn’t acted exactly as I had, setting off the series of events that led to a turning point. For example, if I hadn’t been interested in learning about universities I wouldn’t have gone to the careers night, or if I hadn’t actually called Ted, I may not have really thought it was possible to make a living doing what I do.

The other interesting thing about the exercise was that I noticed that though it started as pretty much a linear map of chronological events, as soon as I started factoring in people who have played a role, the diagram became much more complicated and a truer representation of life. It also made me think of an important point the articles on memoir writing didn’t focus on: the fact that most of the richness of one’s life doesn’t come from events, it comes from interactions with people.

As I said at the start, this exercise hasn’t completely put to rest all my questions about fate versus free will, but it has shown me see just how much my actions have helped nudge things along and that realization is pretty empowering. It’s convinced me that the direction my life takes is most definitely a product of both fate and free will and that I have more influence in that mix than I ever truly realized.

What about you? Have you ever pondered the role of fate versus free will in your life? If so, maybe you should give the turning-point exercise a try. Hell, even if you don’t care much about the philosophical question, the exercise might just make you realize you should write a memoir.

© 2010 Ingrid Sapona


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