Dialogue in the Gulag

XO– I can’t really use my free-will!
– No, you can’t.

I’m rather surprised. He just said it in the simplest possible way.

– I never had the possibility to choose freely!
– Yes and no.

He smiles. I get angry:

– I can see nothing but determinism. Things that weren’t chosen by me lead me here and now. Then, even if I was offered the illusion of choice, even if I was offered the luxury of doubt between several options, someone from the outside could easily predict my next move. So how can you say I had the possibility of free choice?
– Who taught you about free will?
– My psychotherapy supervisor.
– So you were given the power of free will quite early in your life… Others had to wait tens of years before knowing that they have the option of choosing a different path.
– Yes, but the fact that I’ve chosen to get into the psychotherapy group was beyond my control. I had to go there, driven by my thirst to cure my life. It was an unconscious, but predestined decision. Now I can see it but at that time I couldn’t know what I was doing…

We stop. After a while, he continues:

– You weren’t granted free will on choosing your career. This is true. You weren’t granted free will on learning about free will. You had to learn about it. But from that particular moment, you found out that there is a possibility to say “yes” and another to say “no”.
– So I never had the choice of not knowing about free will.
– No.

My thoughts wander for some moments:

– Do you say I don’t own my life?
– You own a very small part of it, indeed…
– Which one?
– You can choose to pretend that your life is yours or you can accept you have no control. In other words, you can use your free will on your attitude.
– These are the limits of my free will.
– For now, yes.

Silence falls on us.


Read also You Have An Appointment and Inception.

Below is an image I took some years ago in the Trianon Gardens of Versailles. A labyrinth. You can’t use your free will on choosing the right or the left path. Your choice is already known by the time you arrived there. In other words, you can’t choose the experience. But you can use your free will on accepting that you can’t control the choice you’ll make. In other words, you can choose your attitude. Frankl’s last freedom.



3 thoughts on “Dialogue in the Gulag

  1. Danny wants to go outside and play, but doesn’t want to wear his jacket. His mom says it’s too cold, and if he wants to go out he must wear the jacket. So, Danny puts on the jacket, against his will, and goes out to play.

    When Danny is older, he’ll get to choose for himself, of his own free will, whether to wear a jacket when he goes out, and he will have to deal with the consequences of his choice.

    That’s all that free will was or ever will be, the simple ability to choose for yourself what you will do.

    Who told you it was any more complicated than that?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comment, Marvin!

      First, my text is more about acceptance than determinism, about a double standard I’m using in understanding life. You seem to be a mostly analytical person and everything makes sense to you and seems to be simple. And yes, it’s simple. Everything is determined before. For me, this is a recent discovery.

      Second, what bothers me is that Danny never had the choice to go outside and see for himself how does cold feels like. There was always his mother telling him to wear his jacket. OK, this prevented him from having a bad experience but at the same time prevented him to have that experience anyway. From a humanitarian point of view, it’s ok. But from the freedom viewpoint, all his future decisions are shaped by the initial set up that “when’s cold he must wear a jacket”. Again, this is simple, as you say, and it’s true.

      Third, Danny’s mother could have moved to a warmer country where Danny wouldn’t have been forced to wear a jacket when he goes out, but for deterministic reasons she couldn’t. This has now an impact in Danny’s life.

      I don’t have a problem with determinism, but I have one with limitations. And in fact, not with limitations – because they are there, they are real and factual – but with my emotional reaction to those limitations. With accepting my limits. And when I say limits, I say prison and hence the term of Gulag. My Gulag. If I were purely analytical, things would have been simpler. But since I’m not, I’m carrying inside the opposites, the reason and the emotion. And knowing that this oxymoronic experience too wasn’t chosen by myself (I couldn’t choose my personality or personal history), adds to my frustration.


  2. There are three constraints that we cannot avoid: causation, ourselves, and the real world.

    Since reliable causation is how we do everything, by choosing to cause this or to cause that, it is essential to our liberty.

    Although we cannot escape ourselves, we can always choose what we will do about it. I used to be addicted to cigarettes, and I’ll still miss them sometimes. But they no longer control me as they did.

    We all escape the real world in fantasy, dreams, books, TV, and movies. But it is satisfying sometimes to address the real world through politics, or charity, or work, or creating art.

    Liked by 1 person

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