Contrary to what some scientists and professionals may tell you, your genes do not dictate your destiny. If your parents abused you, it does not mean you are forced to go on and abuse your kids. Similarly, if your family tree appears dense with certain medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes or cancer, it is not a foregone conclusion that you will suffer from those same diseases. Sure, you may inherit a genetic predisposition of sorts and even significant behavioral and cognitive conditioning to replicate behaviors and beliefs that lead to those same outcomes, however, you can carve your own path and be free of the past. The first step comes in making a choice to be free of the past, the rest includes making a few belief and lifestyle changes to keep you on the healthier road of your choosing. (Yes, this is assuming that you want to improve and not the reverse.:))
First, you must make a choice. Maybe this is where that elusive and controversial notion of free will comes in. Perhaps you thought you were in complete control of each action you take. Some scientists would argue that cultural and behavioral conditioning leaves you no choice; you are simply responding to the environment in the way you were taught. Moreover, some neurocognitive research has revealed brain activity in the brain before a person was aware they were going to engage in an action. Add to that, the old story about the roasting pan:
While preparing for a dinner party, the hostess was asked by her girlfriend why she was cutting off the end of a perfectly good roast. The woman blushed and replied, “Uh, my mother always did this. Maybe it’s supposed to make it cook better?” After seeing her friend’s disapproving frown, she decided to dig a little deeper.
Later that night she phoned her mother and asked why she always cut off the end of the roast, as she was certain it didn’t help it cook faster or taste any better. “Hmmm,” her mother replied. “That’s a really good question. I guess I always did that because Grandma did that.”
Feeling like she needed to investigate this a little further, the woman visited her grandmother the next day.
“Grandma, do you remember cutting off the end of the roast? Mom said you always did that, so she’s been doing that and now I’ve been doing that, but I really have no idea why. My friend thinks it’s foolish and ruining the roast.”
Her grandmother looked a little lost at first and the woman feared she couldn’t remember and would not be able to give a good reason that justified the cooking technique to her friend. Then her grandmother began to giggle and answered her question.
“Oh Sweetheart, now I know what you’re talking about and I can’t believe you and your Mama have been cutting off the end of the roast all this time. I did that because I didn’t have a pan big enough for the roast, so I trimmed it and would always save the end for a soup.”
There are a few examples in this story that are worth highlighting. The obvious one is that the young woman and her mother made decisions based on observation and mimicking a behavior without questioning it. Even when the woman questioned the behavior, it was in response to ‘saving face’ with her friend and not necessarily to make her own independent choices. In addition, the grandmother’s behavior to cut off the roast was in reaction to the physical constraint of the pan.
The takeaway is that a lot of us are operating on autopilot with a preset course far more than we realize. Consequently, it behooves us not to take our sense of free will for granted. Only when you recognize that something else could be unconsciously usurping control over your thoughts, decisions and actions, is when you can access your true free will.
Let’s look back at the story about the roast to identify where free will kicked in. One example is when the grandmother made a conscious choice about what to do with the end of the meat that she removed. Other decisions that led to that choice may have controlled her behavior (i.e. the size of the pan), however, she was able to freely decide what she could do with the extra segment. Similarly, while the young woman sought an answer to justify her cooking behavior to her friend, she was now armed with new information that would release her free will the next time she made a roast. From the lesson of self-awareness, she could now choose how she would prefer to cook a roast in the future.
Simply put, self-awareness unlocks free will. Instead of living in reaction and blindly following impulses, self-awareness lets us make conscious choices. Self-awareness shows us where our blinders have been, so that we can make new informed choices (or live with our old choices, secure in knowing we made the decision).
Take some time to pay attention to how many of your behaviors and beliefs have gone unquestioned. Examine them. Realize where you’ve lived on autopilot and deactivate that button by waking up to the fact it has been pressed in certain areas of your life. Once you do that, come back to read part II of this topic where we’ll discuss the next steps on making choices for living a healthy life that is both free of the past and that fulfills your desired destiny. If you want a little help or want to share your personal experience with catching yourself on autopilot, you can share in the comments section or email me at the address provided in my contact section.
Cheering you on your path from here!