It Couldn't Be Any Other Way

I went for a run in the arboretum, trying to shake the sadness about my daughter not coming home for Thanksgiving that has been shadowing me. Instead of which, I started ruminating about all the choices I have made in life that resulted in this eventuality. Entirely ignoring that her opting to spend the holiday with her partner is the natural order of things, that she lives on the other side of the country and the airfare for a weekend is absurd, that I’ll see her in a month, every pounding step was an accusation, recrimination, castigation. Suddenly I could see in full array, every mis-step, wrong headedness, and failure, and knew with absolute clarity that I have completely blown it.

This clearly wasn’t working.

Stuffing ear buds into my ears, I turned on a podcast, hoping to drown myself out. This American Life, a longtime favorite. And suddenly there at the end, Ira is talking about free will. Or the lack there of. This idea that neurons fire or don’t fire, leading to actions or non-actions, words or silence, based on such a complexity of inner and outer forces as to be fully opaque, but far from random. That in fact, at the final moment of “choice,” there are no options. What is going to happen, based on an endless array of prior events and contextual phenomena, happens.

It’s a difficult idea. And an awkward one, having devoted my life to trying to help people gain consciousness and make clear minded choices. I am deeply invested in the belief that every one of us has the capability to do better. But in this moment, I am suddenly feeling a bit of relief. Maybe, instead of doing the wrong thing at every turn, I have been simply following an inexorable path. I am reminded of my other deep belief — that at every juncture, each of us does the best thing we know how to do, and that the wisest approach is to view ourselves with compassion and gently begin again. Over and over. Let’s just say that if we don’t have free will, we certainly have the illusion of it, and we might as well invest in that to keep ourselves occupied while the inevitable that is our lives plays out.

Would I really go back and do something differently? I think of those plot lines that play with time, and the dangers of going back and changing something, such that everything going forward is un-done, and the probability that I wouldn’t even have this particular child if I started in on that game.

Heading up the final hill, I am thinking about the pictures my daughter and I have been texting back and forth — clearly she is as sad as I am about not being home — and how proud I am of her for making her way forward in the world. I understand fully that my job in her life now is to let go. I am here to stabilize her, but her trajectory is outward, and that is good. I remember the brutality with which I left my own mother so many years ago, and realize that my experience in this role has been far gentler than hers was. And Oh Help! Here’s another opportunity to cascade back into guilt.

Turning away from that rabbit hole, panting, I crest the hill, and trot down the final incline back to my house, my life, that has come into being one inevitable choice after another. And it’s OK.