Here’s why I’m telling you this. I spent much of last week pretty well flattened: in serious discomfort, occasionally verging into real pain. And I was struck — as I always am when I’m sick or injured — by how fragile I am.
I don’t just mean my body. I mean my… well, me. My selfhood, my identity. What I would call my soul, if I believed in that.
This is what I mean. So many of the things that are central to my identity, things I pride myself on and think of as central to my self — my optimism, my cheerful disposition, my compassion, my ability to cut people slack, my energy, my libido, my hard-workingness, my consciousness of others — all of these were shot to hell last week. I was irritable, I was lethargic, I was self-absorbed, I was whiny. I was everything I don’t like.
All because of pain.
Worse — for me, at least — I got almost no writing done. Partly because I was having abdominal pain and had a hard time sitting up, but largely because I just didn’t want to. I didn’t even want to read. I simply didn’t have it in me. I didn’t have it in me to do anything except lie flat on the sofa with a hot water bottle and watch TV.
And I started thinking: What if this were chronic?
What if I felt like this all the time?
Who would I be?
I have a tendency to be a bit smug and self-righteous about my optimism and cheerfulness and whatnot. I have a tendency to see having a good nature as something you can choose. Because most of the time, that’s how it is for me. I see a situation, and I see in front of me the way of looking at it that’s suspicious and gloomy and pessimistic, and I see the way of looking at it that’s generous and hopeful… and when it’s reasonable and not obviously deluded to do so, I opt for the latter. I see optimism as a choice, a conscious way of framing your life and the world that not only makes you feel better in the short run but makes actual external things in your life better in the long run. And I get truly baffled by people who can’t or won’t do it.
But when I’m sick or injured, I get a lot more humble about it. I realize that a huge amount of my ability to choose optimism is balanced on some very precarious teeter-totters: good physical health and financial stability being the most obvious. (It doesn’t help that I’m reading the new Oliver Sacks book, “Musicophilia,” and thus am reading all this stuff about the freaky ways that brain injuries can radically change the things most central to a person’s self and the things that connect them with the world. Eep.)
I just kept thinking last week, as I got up to refill the hot water bottle for the twentieth time: If the pain I’m in became chronic, would I adjust and find a way back to my native optimism and energy, sucking up and dealing with the pain the way I suck up and deal with the other things in my life that are crummy? I’d like to think so; but I really don’t know. I know some people can. I honestly don’t know if I’m one of them. (Ingrid says there’s a large body of research on chronic pain and its effect on people’s selves and lives and freedom; and not surprisingly, that effect is Not Good.)
And would I even have developed my native optimism in the first place if I hadn’t spent most of my life in pretty good physical health? Again, I’d like to think so; but I really don’t know.
I think this is important stuff for atheists and humanists and naturalists. This is the thing that was really striking me when I was on the sofa with the hot water bottle. If there is no God and no soul, and everything we are is comprised of physical things and the relationships between physical things… then when you change those physical things, the self changes as well. Our selves are not in our own hands nearly as much as we like to think.
I’m not saying that we don’t have any responsibility for ourselves and the choices we make. I think we do. I’m not quite sure what, if anything, this weird free will stuff is — I don’t think anyone does at this point — but I do think that we have something resembling free will and moral accountability. And unless a preponderance of evidence piles up showing that human beings really are just elaborate stimulus-response machines, I’m going to go on holding myself and others morally accountable for our choices. If I’m not responsible for how I manage my pain, then nobody is responsible for anything they do… and in the absence of a preponderance of evidence to the contrary, I’m just not willing to accept that.
What I am saying is this: Whatever free will is, it seems to not be a simple matter of either/or, a light switch that’s either on or off. (See the excellent On the Possibility of Perfect Humanity at Daylight Atheism for more on this.) Things happen in our lives that can limit or expand our freedom, that can broaden or diminish the choices that are available to us. Some of these are things that we can do something about; some of them really, really aren’t. And I think those of us who have a lot of choices need to remember to have compassion for people who don’t have as many.