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Free Will: How to Avoid Anger and Depression

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By Yosef Polter, Baltimore, Maryland
MyLife Essay Contest 2018

The question whether free will exists is as old as time. Theories on the topic vary from one extreme, stating that free will is a complete illusion, to the opposite extreme, that an individual has free will in all aspects of life. Chassidus explains that free will does exist, however, it is severely limited.

Scenario 1: Imagine you are in a public area. Suddenly, a stranger starts cursing you loudly, about something you may not have even done. Or, imagine he walks over and slaps you across the face.

Scenario 2: Imagine you made a large investment in a very promising business venture, that was supposed to set you up financially, for life. A few months later, you find out that the whole thing was a scam, and you lost all the money you saved for the past 20 years.

Scenario 3: Imagine you are feeling down because you, once again, caved into temptation, and did that one thing you keep promising yourself you won’t to do anymore.

Will you be angry at the stranger who cursed you? How about the one who slapped you? The con man who scammed you? Will you give up trying to fight your challenges after failing so many times?

Popular self-help books will say things like, “there is no use being angry, it won’t help the situation,” or “don’t let your failures define you . . . move on to the next thing.” This, however, is just telling the person, “ignore what happened and move on.” It does not deal with the real issue, nor does it ​explain​ to the  person why there is no real​ ​reason to get angry in the first place. In this essay, we will take a closer look at a few points and ways that Chassidus views free will. We will examine the saying of our sages, “When one gets angry, it is as if he is serving idols.”(1) After internalizing these concepts, we will see how Chassidus answers how to ​avoid​ anger and depression. This will be accomplished through explaining that G-d is in control of everything, and nothing happens without G-d wanting it to happen.

Free Will through the Lens of Chassidus:

Chassidus tells us that ​true ​free will is something that, naturally, cannot exist. To make a truly free choice, means that there is no influence directing the person’s decision. For if there is a reason behind it, then the person’s nature or intellect ​forces the choice, which is not truly free.(2) To illustrate this point: A homeless and starving beggar is presented with a choice. He may choose to partake from a table set with the choicest delicacies, or enter a burning furnace. The choice between the two is not a truly free one.​(3) (I trust you can guess which one he chose.) The same is true of all choices in life. Due to one’s inborn nature, as well as the influence of one’s surroundings, the person will always lean towards one of the choices over the other. In effect, this natural subjectivity, will be the deciding factor in the person’s decision. In the words of philosophers, “If everything that happens in the world is cause and effect, someone with knowledge of all the details of what is happening everywhere in the world, at any specific point of time, the laws of nature, every person’s nature, as well as the way they are influenced by others, will be able to ​figure out ​exactly what will happen until the end of time.”(4)

Therefore, to say that free will does​ ​exist, means that it must come from G-d in a supernatural way.(4) Chassidus explains, that G-d gave all Jews free will.​(5) This was for a very specific reason; to be able to fulfill the commandments of the Torah,​(6) through which one lights up the darkness of the world.​(7) What this, in effect, means, is that any choice unrelated to Jews fulfilling the commandments of the Torah, even if the person may feel that it is a free choice, by default, it is not truly free. (For a discussion of free will of non-Jews, see Toras Menachem 5747 Parshas Shemini.​(8) As well as for a discussion of free will of animals, see the Maamer Kevod Malchuscha 5660 by the Rebbe Rashab, the fifth Chabad Rebbe.)

This being the case, however, G-d only gave free will in a way that can affect the individual, himself, to fulfill ​His​ commandments. To use one’s free will to affect others negatively, even if one so desires (unless G-d desires for this to happen, as we will explain), is beyond his G-d given abilities.​(9)(10)

Now, there is one problem with the concept of people having the ability to make their own free choices. It takes away from G-d’s oneness as the sole sovereign. We must therefore say, that the person’s free will is even more limited than we thought. Chassidus therefore explains, that whatever state an individual finds himself in, is all part of G-d’s master plan for the world. Even if one finds himself in a low state, even spiritually, it is only because G-d wants him to be in this state, in order to gain from it. The individual’s free will only kicks in, in regard to how he gets to that state.​(11)

How this Knowledge Can Change One’s Perspective of Reality:

When one truly understands these concepts, he will be able to view reality in a completely new light. Instead of viewing occurrences in life as a random series of events, one realizes that it is all G-d’s doing. It is all part of G-d’s master plan.

Let’s go back to our first example of the stranger who cursed or slapped you in public, as well as the example of losing all of your life’s savings in a scam. These are actual examples given by the the first Chabad Rebbe, known as the Alter Rebbe, in Epistle 25 of the fourth section of his monumental work, the Tanya. The Alter Rebbe explains there (based on the concepts we explained above), that these occurrences would not be possible without G-d wanting them to occur, and actually deciding that they should happen. Even if it would not have been through this specific individual (since cursing, slapping, and stealing are all negative commandments, the individual perpetrator has free will to decide whether or not he will do them), since G-d wants it to happen (as proven by the fact that it happened), He would have arranged for it to happen in a different way. So what is the reason to get angry if it is all from G-d? Furthermore, if one does get angry, that shows that he does not believe that it is G-d who orchestrated it. Hence, the saying of our sages, “when one gets angry, it is as if he is serving idols.”

Now let’s go on to our next example, where you are feeling down because you keep on failing to overcome your challenges. This example is actually given by the seventh Chabad Rebbe, known as the Rebbe, in the first sicha (talk) of the weekly portion of Lech Lecha in Vol. 5 of Likkutei Sichos. The Rebbe explains there, that no matter the situation, even if a Jew finds himself in a low state, even spiritually, he should not give up hope of overcoming his challenges. Because (based on the concepts we explained before), the fact that you are in this current state, ​must​ be part of G-d’s master plan, in order for you to gain something. Even spiritually, through repenting, one could reach an ever higher state than before. So instead of feeling down, now, that you are in this state, try to figure out what you can gain from the situation.

How to Put this into Practical Application:

To put this knowledge into practice, learn, meditate on, and internalize these concepts. Think about how G-d is in full control of the world, and nothing happens without him deciding that it should transpire. This will change one’s entire perspective of how the world runs, and how one should react to every situation.

So the next time you find yourself in a situation where you are about to get angry at someone, stop and ask yourself:

● Is it possible for this to have happened without G-d deciding that it should occur?
● Even without this specific person doing it, wouldn’t this have happened regardless?
● If G-d is running the show, is there a reason for me to get angry?
● If I get angry, isn’t that, in effect, denying G-d’s control of the situation?

Practice the same thing the next time you are feeling down, due to your failures, and feeling that you will never be able to overcome your challenges. Stop and ask yourself:

● Would it be possible for me to be in this situation without G-d wanting me to be?
● What positive aspect could I take out from my current situation that I would not have otherwise?
● How can I use this to go forward, even stronger than before?

What will you do the next time you start to feel angry or depressed? Will you let your emotions overtake you, or will you use your G-d given ability of free will to stop and think? You can achieve a life of equanimity through Chassidus. The choice is yours and yours alone!


Sources and Notes
[1] Zohar I 27b
[2] Likkutei Sichos Vol. 4 Hosafos for Shavuos
[3] This example is based on Likkutei Sichos Vol. 7 Hosafos for Avos Perek 3
[4] Toras Menachem 5745 Night 3 of Succos
[5] For a discussion of ​how​ Jews have the ability of free will if naturally this is something that cannot exist, see Likkutei Torah Parshas Emor 38b
[6] See Berachos 33b
[7] Sichos Kodesh 5732 Parshas Chukas-Balak
[8] For a discussion of ​how​ non-Jews have the ability of free will if naturally this is something that cannot exist, see Likkutei Sichos Vol. 16 Hosafos Parshas Yisro
[9] Igeres Hakodesh Siman 25
[10] For a discussion of whether one has free will to affect others positively, see Likkutei Sichos Vol. 7 Parshas Vayikra Sicha 1 Note 22
[11] Likkutei Sichos Vol. 5 Parshas Lech Lecha Sicha 1

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2 Responses to “Free Will: How to Avoid Anger and Depression”

  1. Dr Kenneth Zipkin

    All above is true through the thoughts of very incisive Rabbis in the past and of those current. But all depends on the belief that G-d created all and is in complete charge of all. Originally there were very few, from Adam on and now there are billions of humans. With unlimited knowledge and power G-d should be able to predetermine all forever in every universe He/she created. But only if that was the desire by the creator. My son once remarked” what if the creation of this universe was only a project of a G-d , in G-d school, during a third grade class?”. Perhaps all the death and horror and elimination of humanity( as in Noah), could have been avoided if this was a project in twelfth grade class. We don’t know and never will. Why should the unbeliever or agnostic have faith or belief? Half of the ten commandments are demands by G-d for G-d.The rest are societally relative to good human existence. Free will allows decisions based on feelings and mind within our lives. It’s what we do.

  2. Menachem

    Nice Essay. I’d like to point out that there is a great benefit of understanding that the things that happened to us came from G-d, as opposed to only coming from the person who did something bad to us.

    We have limited control over other people’s actions. So if we blame the other person, we may not be able to do much more than get angry, since there is little we can do to change the other person. On the other hand, if we realize that it comes from G-d, that must mean that G-d is saying that I needed/deserved the bad thing that happened to me. If so, I can figure out what I need to change about myself, that this thing will no longer be necessary.

    In essence, I’ve realized that I do have control of the situation, which will motivate me to action instead of anger.

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