What is choice? Is it really free?
Science has been grappling with this question no less than religion, and among its finer efforts it has produced such diversified disciplines as reductionism and holistic biology. We will borrow these models to try and explain the paradoxical nature of choice – how it can be free and not free at the same time. How it can be choice and fate in the same blink of an eye.
According to reductionism, when you want to understand something you reduce it down to its most basic building blocks. So, if you want to understand a muscle, you reduce it down to muscle cells. And through your examination of the cells, you try to understand the workings of the whole muscle.
But holistic biology has a completely different approach. It says you cannot understand the whole muscle by reducing it to its constituent parts. Why? Because holistic biology believes that the whole is actually greater than the sum of its parts. Further, holistic biology claims that the whole of the organism establishes certain principles of organization and guides the process.
Take a chicken, for example. A chicken has a holistic character, but this holistic character cannot be found in a particular place inside the chicken – not in the liver or the brain or the heart – because the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, not a function of the parts. In fact, the parts are a function of the whole. This abstract whole exists and is seeking to be expressed through its parts. And it sets up certain principles which govern the process, but the mystery of it is that it governs the process in such a manner that the parts still remain free.
So let's for a moment imagine that you and I are cells living in an evolving chicken embryo. Of course you and I don't know this. You're doing your thing. I'm doing my thing. Never in a million years do we think that what we're doing has any impact on any other cell, anybody else around. You're building your yacht and I'm building my estate, and you're fixing your motorcycle and we are all doing various random activities which seem to have no connection to each other. And then there is this smart-aleck cell that says: "I think there is some kind of thematic principle to our histories. And even though we all kind of feel like our activities are very random and disconnected and fragmented, I really think that somehow – in a way that we ourselves don't even realize – we are contributing to some greater plan that is actually being fulfilled through us. In some way, each and every one of us, without knowing, are instruments of this theme. And it's playing through us."
Of course, a number of us cells right away call him a nut. But this guy is absolutely committed to proving his point, and he develops this contraption – a rocket ship – and he gets out of the scene, and he starts taking pictures of the whole chicken. And he proves that every single one of us atoms was contributing to the development of a cosmic chicken. You thought you were just building your yard, but in fact, you were building the beak. And you thought you had nothing to do with me when you were fixing your motorcycle, but in fact you were completing the feet. And so on, and so forth, there actually has been this pattern that we were completely unaware of but to which we've been contributing all along.
You thought you were free to do whatever you wanted –and you were – but nevertheless there was a predetermined plan at work as well. And so it is with our lives on earth.
Choice vs. Fate
Sometimes you feel that you lead your life, but there are times when – the only way you can describe it is – life leads you.
You've had a fight with your boyfriend, and you never want to see him again. You take the first plane out to the North Pole and just as you're checking into a five-star igloo, lo and behold, checking in beside you is your boyfriend who, in trying to get away from you, also decided to go to the ends of the earth. And the whole thing gives you the chills.
Sometimes you feel that you made the choice, and you got to where you were going because you made that choice, and sometimes you feel no matter what choice you made, somehow, you ended up being where you were suppose to be.
It goes beyond the dichotomy of free choice and fate. Sometimes the deterministic element of our lives becomes more apparent, and sometimes the choice aspect becomes more apparent.
But what we learn from the Torah is that life is beyond either/or – beyond choice or fate. G-d has a plan and we are players in the plan and the question isn't whether we are going to contribute to the plan – because the fact is that we are definitely contributing – the question is whether we know we're contributing and how. The question is whether we choose a path that clearly aligns itself with that movement of life, so that we can see it, feel it, taste it, so that we can be consciously a part of it. Or, whether we choose a path that seems absolutely oblivious to it.
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There is fate – a clear direction, a goal, a plan. What's going to be is going to be. But how it's going to happen is totally up to us. It is our choice. And whether we choose to work toward growth and love, or against, that is also our choice.
The evolution of the world of love is going on no matter what. Your choice is – do you want to have a role in it or not? Do you want to actively, consciously, participate in it or not? If you don't sign on, it will still happen. But you lose out. The world won't ultimately lose out, because someone else will do it. It has to happen and it will happen. But do you want to facilitate that redemptive process? That's really your choice.
It is rather like a play written by a master playwright – G-d. The curtain is up, the scenery is in place. The number of acts has been decided. There will be a happy ending. What role do you choose to play? The hero? The villain? The protagonist? The antagonist? The victim? That is your choice.
The Play of Life
We all know the famous Shakespearean line: "All the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players ..."And this is also what I am saying here, except that the word "merely" bothers me because it diminishes our role. We, as the characters we play, are facilitating the expression of nothing less than love and truth – G-d.
That is the theme of the play, and each and every one of us plays a role in it. That is fate. But within that play you have many choices: Will you play your role, understanding what it is, coordinating with the director, with the producer, having a sense of what you're really facilitating, what aspect of reality you're revealing in this world?
Or, are you going to say "There is no theme, there is no play, there is no stage, there are no lines, there is no director and I'm not willing to take any direction in my life."
In a mysterious way, we will serve to fulfill the ultimate plan of G-d. But will we serve in a conscious way, appreciating it, and benefiting from the joy of knowing we are playing our role and consciously contributing to the process? Or will we simply be a victim of it?
The Biblical story about Joseph and his brothers show this ironic connection between fate and free choice.
Joseph the son of Jacob dreamt that his father and brothers would someday bow down to him. Young and perhaps naive he told his brothers of this repeated theme as it was symbolized in his dreams. His brothers didn't like it one bit. They started to feel threatened. "Would you then reign over us? [or] Would you then dominate us?" The brothers were infuriated. They rhetorically asked whether he would reign over them as a king who is accepted by the people's consensus or whether he would dominate them through force as a tyrant. It was clear to them that there was nothing prophetic about his dream. They would never bow to him through choice. These dreams were proof of his unconscious desires for ruling power and tyranny. They therefore judged him as a traitor and decided to execute him.
One day Joseph's father sent him to see how his brothers were doing. "They saw him from afar, and when he had not yet approached them they conspired against him to kill him. And they said to one another "..............we shall see what will become of his dreams."
This they said rhetorically. But the oral tradition explains that what they said was really a prophetic slip. They indeed did see what became of his dreams. And they helped make it come true.
Instead of killing him they decided it was good enough just to sell him as a slave. So they sold him to some Ishmaelites who had passed by in a caravan. And off Joseph went to Egypt. And there in Egypt through a number of unusual circumstances Joseph receives the favor of the King and is appointed viceroy of Egypt. The King even gave him the royal ring which empowered him to be functionally the head of state. A number of years later, during a harsh famine, Jacob sends his sons to Egypt to bring food. And there, of course, they bow before this mighty Viceroy of Egypt and plead for some food to bring back to their families. Little did they know–- so many years had gone by–- but this viceroy before whom they bowed was Joseph who they sold as a slave. When Joseph finally revealed his true identity to them, they were frightened.
"I am Joseph your brother –it is me whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, nor reproach yourselves for having sold me here, for it was to be a provider that G-d sent me ahead of you....It was not you that sent me here but G-d."
Joseph taught his brothers and teaches us that G-d directs the show and has already written the final scene. We've all come into this world with a role to play. But we choose how to play it. We can choose the way of awareness and enjoy the consciousness of being part of G-d's drama, members of G-d's cast of players or we could choose to be oblivious, blind, and stumble in the dark.
Why not walk in the light? Why not play the role of the hero and enjoy knowing your role? Why not choose the way of awareness illuminated by the theme of life.
Adapted from Endless Light: The Ancient Path of Kabbalah to Love, Spiritual Growth and Personal Power