perseverance

What Is Will? (1)

I. Will and Intention

The usual conception of will is that it is mental intention; a thought of doing something. “I will knit a sweater.” Then the brain sends signals to the muscles, and the act of knitting is performed. This would be an example of free will: choosing a course of action and executing it. Having the thought of doing something, then doing it.


But why is it that our will doesn’t seem to work sometimes? It is a rare human being indeed who has never experienced intending to do something that didn’t get done, such as reply to a letter or e-mail, or write a report, or fix a dripping faucet. I’m not talking about conscious choices not to do something you originally planned to do; I mean the activities that simply end up not having happened. This is what makes procrastination so baffling: procrastination isn’t really a choice; not when it feels like procrastination, anyway. Procrastination—the “dilatory”1 kind—is what we do when we’re not doing what we intended to do. The mental intention is there, but the intended action isn’t. When we intend to do something, we say, “I’m going to do that,” as if to mean, “I’m squarely facing that activity and I’m on my way toward it, but I’m not there yet.”

A Short Zero-Act Play Not About Will

Scene: Millie, while texting, talks to Willy, who is playing a computer game.

Millie: I’m going to knit a sweater.

Willy: Are you knitting it right now?

Millie: No, but I’m going to.

Curtain

Of course it is possible that, in a revision of the above play, Millie could demonstrate determination and grit and actually do what she intended. In that case her claim, “I’m going to,” would turn out to have meant: “I will knit a sweater, even if it’s the last thing I do!” This alternate scenario is closer to the essence of what will is. That which is willed will in fact happen. There is no such thing as willed activity in theory; that’s an oxymoron. There is no such thing as will in intent only. Will is will in action by definition.

We don’t look at Hamlet when he’s deliberating whether he should revenge his father now while the murderer is defenselessly praying on his knees, or whether he should wait for a more opportune moment when the murderer will more likely go to Hell instead of Heaven—we don’t watch this scene in the theatre and admire Hamlet’s willpower while he intends and intends and intends to act. Meanwhile, the two other characters in Shakespeare’s tragedy who have lost their fathers—Laertes and Fortinbras—both singlemindedly pursue their respective revenge plots. Neither is able to achieve his goal immediately. Laertes must collude with the king, because his target is Prince Hamlet himself, whom Laertes kills at the first viable opportunity. Fortinbras marches his army into an utterly profitless battle, just to move into position to get what he wants and takes at the end of the play, which is the crown and country of Denmark itself.

The proof of will is in the follow-through. For Millie’s sweater to get knitted, all that’s necessary is Millie’s will—plus some dexterity, some yarn and knitting needles. And yet, if she knows how to knit, and has the tools, won’t the act of knitting follow naturally? Why is her will necessary?

A Short Zero-Act Play About Will

Scene: Willy visits Millie in the rec-room at the Home for Ennui.

Willy: Aren’t you going to knit your sweater?

Millie: I don’t want to.

Willy: If you don’t, they’re going to take away your needles and yarn.

Millie: I don’t care.

No further action. The curtain doesn’t fall. Eventually the audience gets bored and wanders away.

Will is necessary because it is the force that overcomes inertia. Without the will to knit, poor Millie will waste away in the Home for Ennui watching reruns of Lost.

But how can she engage her will to knit if she never says or at least thinks: “I’m going to knit”? Doesn’t she need intention as well as will? If her will is free, then sure. If she chooses to knit a sweater of her own free will, her intention will be evident in her choice, as her will shall be evident in her follow-through action. But does intention always precede an act of will? Is intention a prerequisite for action? As we’ve seen, intention is not the same thing as will. Intention goes hand-in-hand with choice and decision, but does not necessarily lead to execution. If Millie chooses to knit, she will have that intention, as she did in the first play, but this does not guarantee that she will knit the sweater.

What about the reverse case?—If she in fact knits the sweater in an exercise of will, must she have intended to do so?

A Short One-Act Play About Will

Scene: Willy, dressed for Saturday night, tries to get Millie to go out with him.

Willy: Come on.

Millie: I’m busy knitting a sweater.

Willy: Every time I look at you you’re knitting a sweater. Why are you knitting a sweater now, anyway? It’s midsummer.

Millie: I don’t know. Everyone in my family knits sweaters all year round. It’s just what I do.

Willy: Stop knitting! (He grabs the yarn.)

(Millie stabs him with a knitting needle. She keeps knitting. Willy crawls to the emergency room of the nearest hospital and eventually lives happily ever after, but is a little cold in winter, because he never wears a sweater.)

Curtain

Millie does indeed knit the sweater. Her will is strongly evident: she will knit, despite Willy’s attempts to dissuade and stop her. But far from freely intending to knit, she appears to do it out of habit, perhaps even mindlessly. Knitting in this case is more like an inherited trait than a choice. She is impelled to knit. The forethought that we associate with intentionality is not there.

It is the freedom in free will that complicates will. With freedom of choice we may do as we intend. But then whether or not we follow through on our intentions we can’t predict with any certainty. We may intend to act, but (in a condition of freedom) we are neither impelled nor compelled to do so. Free will is evident when conscious choice and the will to effect that choice are united. For Millie to exercise her free will, she would have to say (or think) “I’m going to knit a sweater,” and then actually knit one.

If, just for the purpose of observation, we remove the complicating element of freedom of choice, will as the pure force that effects action is much easier to see. Will that is not free looks like instinct. It’s involuntary and inexorable. This is what we’re seeing in the last short play, above. Millie’s behavior in that play is a bit unnerving, because there’s something just a little inhuman about her this time (even without the stabbing); something almost mechanical. She’s like a knitting machine. In other words, she’s like a spider.

Spiders that spin webs2 do so instinctively.3 It’s what they do. If you ask a spider, “Why are you weaving a web now?,” she will reply: “I don’t know. Everyone in my family weaves webs all the time. It’s just what I do.”4 If you destroy her web, she will not stab you, because she’s not big enough to hold knitting needles (silly!). But she will start making her web all over again without hesitation. If you destroy the web again, she’ll weave it again. If you destroy it a hundred times, she will weave it again every time, until she dies. The spider will weave her web.


We tend not to notice will in these kinds of contexts—spiders and their webs, ants and our picnics, birds and the worms that eat of kings—because we free-willers automatically associate will with intention. But distinguishing will from intention can clarify confusing behaviors, like procrastination, in which conscious intention points in one direction and unconscious will—perhaps in the form of an underlying aversion, or an interfering habit—goes in any direction but the chosen one.

The story of will so far:

  • Will is not one and the same as intention.
  • Whereas intention is the idea of an action, will overcomes inertia and initiates action like a force.
  • It is possible to intend something but lack the will to make it happen.
  • It is possible to act with will without intending to do so.
  • Less complex life forms—spiders, for instance—demonstrate powerful will in their behaviors. Spiders do not have free will, though; their will is instinctive.
  • We human beings have free will, in the sense that we may choose (i.e. intend) a course of action, and then carry it out in an exercise of will. But there is no automatic guarantee that we actually shall follow through.

What is it that makes our will free, while the will of spiders is solely instinctive? In this post’s following two episodes, we’ll answer that question by searching more deeply into how will functions. We’ll also go into the reasons we conflate will with intention, and tend to see intention when we’re really looking for will (as when we’re trying to get ourselves to do something we’ve intended to do, but keep not doing). It all turns out to be related to bodies, intelligence, and executive functioning.

To be continued…


Gedankenexperiments

  1. What kinds of activities do you…

    • intend to do, but just don’t?
    • do without intending to?
    • have no trouble intending and doing?
  2. What does “the will to win” mean? How do you manifest it? Where do you feel it, and what does it feel like?

  3. Try to feel your will when you stick to your guns.

  4. Try to feel your will when you change your mind.
     


  1. “Often with the sense of deferring through indecision, when early action would have been preferable.”—Oxford English Dictionary

  2. Not all spiders spin webs. Many hunt down their prey (gulp!). However, for the purposes of this post, in which I am comparing web weaving to knitting, every time I refer to spiders, I will mean those types of spiders that spin webs. 

  3. I am indebted to Dr. Scott McPartland for the image of spiders weaving webs as a metaphor of instinctive will activity. 

  4. Don’t take my word for it. Ask Charlotte (from Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, page 39):

    I’m not entirely happy about my diet of flies and bugs, but it’s the way I’m made. A spider has to pick up a living somehow or other, and I happen to be a trapper. I just naturally build a web and trap flies and other insects. My mother was a trapper before me. Her mother was a trapper before her. All of our family have been trappers.

 

Sanctuary Visualization

Sit or lie so that you are completely comfortable. Let your eyes close.

Focus on your breath. Breathe naturally, and follow the rhythm of inhale… exhale…, as if your breaths were the sea gently washing up and back over the shore.

Relax each part of your body, one part at a time, from your feet to your head. With each breath, imagine light entering that part of your body as you inhale, and all tension draining away as you exhale:

  • Your toes—inhale light; exhale tension
  • Your feet—inhale light; exhale tension
  • Your calves—inhale…; exhale…
  • Your thighs…
  • Buttocks…
  • Pelvis…
  • Abdomen…
  • Back…
  • Chest…
  • Shoulders…
  • Upper arms…
  • Lower arms and wrists…
  • Hands and fingers…
  • Throat…
  • Back of your neck…
  • Back of your head…
  • Jaw…
  • Mouth…
  • Eyes and nose—inhale…; exhale…
  • Forehead and temples—inhale light; exhale tension
  • The top of your head—inhale light; exhale tension

In this state of relaxation, continue your breathing for a moment that lasts as long as you like.

Clear a space in your mind. Just ask everything else on your mind to step back for this moment. Your thoughts need not vanish, only stand back to give you space to be.

Let appear in that cleared space in your mind—a venerable stone stairway. This stone stairway leads down to a place that is solely for you. There are ten steps. When you want to, with one complete breath, in and out, go down the first step and hear a voice inside count:
  “10”——inhale—exhale
    With each subsequent breath, descend another step, counting down, slowly:
      “9”
        “8”
          “7”
            “6”
              “5”
                “4”
                  “3”
                    “2”
                      “1”

You may now step into your sanctuary, a beautiful, peaceful outdoor space created by your imagination, your inspiration, your intuition.

It can be a meadow, a lake, a beach, a waterfall, a grove, a mountain—any natural place where you feel completely secure and at peace. Here you are always safe and content. Here everything is beautiful and true.

No one can enter this place except you, and anyone you expressly invite in. Anyone you invite in will leave the moment you think of them leaving.

Explore your sanctuary. Walk around and discover what’s here. Let your bare feet luxuriate in the grass or sand, or whatever is on the ground. Breathe in the fragrances. Taste the air. Bask in the light and warmth. Hear the sounds—waves, breezes, rustling leaves.…

Everything here understands your every thought and feeling. If there are animals, you may communicate with them, and they will always love and obey you. You may have one or more animals who are your special companions. You can send thoughts to the flora, and every plant can soothe and heal you. Any water here is healing and refreshing when you drink or bathe in it. The air invigorates and inspires you. The light is suffused with warmth and nourishment for your spirit.

Somewhere in the landscape of your sanctuary, there is a source of fresh water; perhaps a spring, or a well, a pristine pool, a stream, an ancient fountain.… There can be more than one. The water here washes away pain, regret, error. It rinses away negative thoughts, opens your senses and pores to the light and warmth. Drinking the water cools and dissolves stuck emotions into new, lighter feelings, new understandings.

Somewhere there is a healing garden. You may create it yourself, or find it already in full bloom. You can cultivate anything you wish here: ideas, dreams, forgiveness, positive feelings, health… and anything you plant will grow. You can prune back whatever hinders your growth. You can weed out what you no longer need. You can plant things you’ve never grown before, new possibilities. Here your love and goodwill always increase.

Somewhere there is a seat for you made of stone or wood, or both, and any other material that makes it perfect for you to sit in. It is here that your Guardian—an angelic being dedicated to your welfare and best destiny—may visit you from time to time (and always when you call), and give you exactly what you need at that moment; guidance, insight, perhaps a special gift, and always comfort and reassurance.

You may stay in your sanctuary as long as your heart desires.

When you are ready to return from your sanctuary, you will find yourself at the bottom of the ancient stone staircase. Climb the ten steps, one at a time, taking a complete breath, in and out, at each step, starting with…
                      “1”——inhale—exhale
                    “2”
                  “3”
                “4”
              “5”
            “6”
          “7”
        “8”
      “9”
  “10”

You are back at the cleared space in your mind. You are rejuvenated, as you always are by a visit to your sanctuary.

Feel your breathing—in, out.…

Feel the solidity and definite shape of your body.

Feel the surfaces that are contacting and supporting your body where you are sitting or lying down.

When you’re ready, open your eyes. You feel rested, alert, energized, calm, embodied, grounded, safe, secure, assured.

You can return to your sanctuary any time you want or need. It is there, always, for you.

 

How to Manage End-of-Term Paper Pile-Up

It is a conspiracy. Your professors are trying to kill you. They have all made their term papers due within days of each other, and then come the final exams you have to study for.

Don’t die. You can’t give them the satisfaction. You must survive. Here’s how.

First, for some of you, things aren’t looking too bad until next week. DON’T BE FOOLED. This is part of their plan: lull you into a false sense of security, and then—WHAM, five different versions of 20 pages plus works cited and annotated bibliography and some new cover page format with something called an “abstract.” Not to mention overdue lab reports and “response” papers.

You need to start now.

Step One: Assess the Damage.

How much work do you have to do between now and the end of term? Make a four-column list of every single assignment:

Assignment | Due Date | Hours of Work | Instructor

“Hours of Work” is the number of hours it will take you to complete the assignment, including all reading, prewriting, writing, revising, proofreading, and packaging with ribbons and bows. If possible, estimate based on past experience with similar assignments: how long has it taken you? In any case estimate liberally; it’s usually a safe bet to multiply your initial guess by 1.5 or 2.

All right, now sit somewhere comfortable, grab a best friend or two and perhaps your favorite stuffed animal for moral support, and count up the total number of hours of work you have in front of you. Breathe. Drink some water. It’s going to be okay.

Step Two: See the Big Picture.

Make a large calendar that includes all the days between now and the end of the final exam period.—8½x11 is way too small; best to tape many 8½x11 sheets together, and put only 2–4 days on each sheet; the more space the better; make this calendar as big as your kitchen table. Write each assignment on a Post-It or small card or something, and place the assignments on their respective due dates; don’t stack: make sure you can see every single assignment.

Step Two-and-a-Half: Reserve Time Between Rounds

If you’re going into battle, be smart about it. Be rigorous about your conditioning. Especially during this period when you have to fire on all cylinders and go into double and triple overtime (to mix as many metaphors as possible), you must get plenty of sleep, eat actual food—you know, from nature—and take non-work breaks to refresh your energy.

For every day on your calendar, generously block out hours to sleep, eat, and chill. You can probably predict from past experience that you’ll end up crashing during those hours anyway if you become over-exhausted, so better to plan for them.

Step Three: Redistribute the Weight.

Now, if your teachers have colluded effectively, you will probably have two or more assignments due on top of each other, or so close together that it looks like you’ll have to work on two or more simultaneously. Proceed with caution.

You will now begin to see before you an illusion. It will appear that all you have to do is work on both assignments X and Y  for a couple of days and you’ll get them both done. Don’t believe it! It’s a mirage, a trick! Don’t try to multitask. Don’t try to be an academic superhero. It’s a fine tactic to move all your due dates back a day or two to give yourself some cushions, but you have to make it so that you can work on one assignment at a time.

Now, solve the calendrical puzzle. Here are the rules:

  • You may move assignments forward or backward on the calendar.
  • You may not let the work periods for multiple assignments overlap.
  • You must sleep and eat during your regular sleeping and eating times. (During this step, sleeping and eating take priority over finishing assignments by their due dates.)
  • You must chill for at least three hours (one or two in emergencies) between assignments.

Move assignments away from each other. When necessary, allow yourself to push some assignments past their due dates. When you do push an assignment past its due date, note that somehow (a red dot, a skull and crossbones…).

If you’ve rearranged your assignments so you can complete them one at a time and hand them all in on or before their due dates, you can skip to Step Five.

If, however, you now have some assignments that are scheduled to be done after their due dates, you must proceed to Step Four.

Step Four: Negotiate.

Ask for extensions on those assignments you needed to push forward on the calendar. It is perfectly respectable to ask for an extension if you ask for it in advance. It might help to fold up your calendar and bring it with you to show your teachers the work schedule you’ve made for yourself. It will show that you have taken control of this difficult but very common situation, and that you are managing it responsibly. This will warm your professors’ hearts, and they will gladly do what they can to help you succeed. Sometimes a professor will respond that a particular assignment can’t be handed in late for one reason or another. If that happens, enlist that professor’s aid in rearranging your calendar so that you can get everything done without fasting or losing sleep.

Step Five: Do Good Enough Work.

Finally, do your assignments, one at a time, and work on them in a goal-oriented way. No masterpieces when you’re under time pressure. Write good, solid, coherent, workmanlike papers. Here is a tried and true essay writing method and template you can use to make the process more efficient. I used to call it the “essay mill.”

Make sure you proofread! It would suck to put in hours of work on many papers and lose points all over the place for not following through.

Reminder: Make Clean Transitions.

Every time you complete an assignment you need to do three things:

  1. Mark it as done on your calendar.
  2. Celebrate its completion.
  3. Take a substantial break before starting the next one.

Marking the assignment done will clear it from your plate, and you’ll feel lighter and more hopeful of success. Celebrating will reinforce your accomplishment, your feeling that you’re getting somewhere, and that will have the effect of refreshing your determination to see this through to the end. Taking a break will act as a palate cleanser: you’ll be able to turn your thoughts away from the last assignment and focus on the next one.

Won’t it be satisfying, at semester’s end, to know that when your professors dished out their worst, you were strong and judicious and skillful, and successfully completed all that work? What a confidence-builder! And think how light and spacious it will feel to be finished and truly free from school, with the warmth and green of summer stretching out before you.

 

“Speech To the Young.
Speech To the Progress-Toward.”

Speech To the Young.<br/>
Speech To the Progress-Toward.

 
Say to them,
say to the down-keepers,
the sun-slappers,
the self-soilers,
the harmony-hushers,
“Even if you are not ready for day
it cannot always be night.”
You will be right.
For that is the hard home-run.
 
Live not for battles won.
Live not for the-end-of-the-song.
Live in the along.

Gwendolyn Brooks

 

Go Fish in
Streams of Consciousness:

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