Choice, Will and Vision

In honor of Martin Luther King, I’d like to share some ideas that I’ve been working on; ideas that concern the roles that choice, will, and vision play in our lives. These concepts are directly related to courage and inspiration, fundamental aspects of the creative process.

I recently saw a movie about Ruby Bridges, one of the African-American children in New Orleans who were part of the first attempt to desegregate public schools in the south. The image of the six-year-old girl being escorted into school by federal marshals, while hundreds of angry white people yelled hateful remarks to her, was very disturbing.

In spite of the hatred directed towards Ruby, she was relatively untroubled by the experience. A psychiatrist who witnessed her life during that year was baffled by her ability to cope with the stress that would easily devastate most people in the same situation. After spending a great deal of time with Ruby and her family, he concluded that her ability to cope was the result of the deep and abiding moral and spiritual values that were a constant in her family. These values allowed Ruby to maintain a sense of dignity. Because her family found meaning in the struggle, they were able to withstand the brutal blows of prejudice. In essence, the psychiatrist concluded that stress without a purpose is debilitating, whereas stress with the understanding that it is serving a purpose allows one to cope.

Viktor Frankl observed the same thing in his concentration camp experience during WWII. He elaborates on this theme in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning”. Those men who found meaning in their suffering were able to withstand the indignities and trauma of the camps, while others succumbed. He concluded that “the last of human freedoms” is the ability to “choose one’s attitude in a given set of circumstances.” From this, it follows that each of us has the ability to choose how we react in any circumstance of our life, and by doing so, to exert some measure of control over our experience of life, even if we are imprisoned.

In a later book, “Will to Meaning”, Frankl concluded that a person, by the very attitude that one chooses, is capable of finding meaning in even a hopeless situation. The philosopher Nietzsche suggested this same thing when he said, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

We are guided in our search for meaning by conscience. Conscience could be defined as the intuitive capacity of man to find out the meaning of a situation. Conscience can be creative, for an individual is often directed by his conscience to do something that contradicts what everyone else around him is doing. This leads us to the concept of self-direction, so vital to the creative personality. To better understand self-direction, it might be helpful to look at the role of will.

“Will and Spirit”, by Gerald May, has helped me to better understand the role that will plays in our lives. As May describes, “will has to do with personal intention and how we decide to use our energies.” Spirit, on the other hand, “…is the energy that impels our being. It is the same energy that impels the being of all creation, and in it we can find our relatedness to everyone and everything in the universe.” May goes on to say that “will directed by spirit (helps us) feel grounded, centered and responsive to the needs of the world as they are presented to us.”

This seems to reflect Frankl's experience, and that of Ruby’s parents. Ruby’s mother embodied the essential blend of will and spirit that enables people to overcome insurmountable odds. And because Ruby had complete trust in her parents, she carried on the vision that they held for her, the vision that their children would have a better life.

May also distinguished willingness from willfulness, and “how they reflect the underlying attitude one has toward the wonder of life itself. Willingness notices this wonder and bows in some kind of reverence to it. Willfulness forgets it, ignores it, or at its worst, actively tries to destroy it.”

So…how do we develop our will, without becoming willful?

I’ve been studying human potential for more than twenty years, and found a base for my exploration in Abraham Maslow’s theory of self-actualization. In that theory, he suggests that humans have a biological drive to improve, to develop themselves and their talents. He further suggests that ignoring this “urge to become more” is what leads to depression, anxiety and hopelessness. To become more, there must be some effort of will, courage and self-assertion.

One of Maslow’s colleagues, Roberto Assagioli, suggests that will is a muscle-like part of the personality that can be strengthened and developed by will-training exercises. Decision and action, guided by effective will, allows us to grow and develop effectively. It is better to do something, even if it is wrong…to just do it! If we are not willing to fail, we are probably also unwilling to succeed, because of the responsibilities that come with success.

In the book “Courage to Create”, Rollo May writes: “Courage is not the absence of despair; it is rather the capacity to move ahead in spite of despair. If you do not listen to your own being, you will have betrayed yourself. We must always base our commitment in the center of our own being, or else no commitment will be ultimately authentic. Courage is necessary to make being and becoming possible…we become more fully human by our choices and our commitment to them. Commitment is healthiest when it is not without doubt, but in spite of doubt.” Martin Luther King had a similar comment: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of courage and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

Stephen Covey, in his book “First Things First”, had another take on Viktor Frankl’s ideas. “Frankl was intrigued with the question of what made it possible for some people to survive when most died. The single most significant factor, he realized, was a sense of future vision – the impelling conviction of those who were to survive that they had a mission to perform, some important work left to do.” He goes on to say that: “Research indicates that children with “future-focused role images”…are significantly more competent in handling the challenges of life.” And so we come full circle to Ruby Bridges, and the future vision that her family instilled in her, making it possible for little Ruby to withstand many hardships.

We can all benefit from having vision in our life. Covey states that, “Vision is the best manifestation of creative imagination and the primary motivation of human action. It’s the ability to see beyond our present reality to create, to invent what does not yet exist, to become what we not yet are. It gives us capacity to live out our imagination instead of our memory.”

Celebrating Martin Luther King’s birthday often serves to renew the concepts of choice, vision and will for me. I am continually reminded that each of us has the capacity to create a better vision of life, for ourselves and the world around us, if only we will make the effort to do so. Building a future vision is one of the most creative pursuits that any human can undertake. Ruby Bridges trusted her parents in their vision for her, and this enabled her to look past the jeering crowds, to pray for them, and to keep her focus on getting to school, the door to her future.

Here’s wishing that each of you can find the courage to create your own future vision, then willingly step through the door of choice to bring that vision into being.

© 2001 Marybeth Bethel

From my radio program, “Inside the Creative Mind”, which aired on January 22, 1998.

For more on Maslow’s theory of self-actualization, click here.