The stories we create about our past dictate our future

Sunday , December 31, 2017 - 4:00 AM

E. KENT WINWARD, special to the Standard-Examiner

Tomorrow is the first day of 2018. It's going to happen whether you want it to or not. People are going to shoot off fireworks, celebrate, make noise, and keep you awake — even if you're a curmudgeon who goes to bed at 9 p.m. on New Year’s Eve. (Trust me, I know this.)

Because we humans are endowed with the gift of hindsight and free will, many of you might be compiling lists of New Year’s resolutions to take control of your life in 2018. We have the ability to control our actions and change our lives. It's why gym memberships soar in January. It’s also why remorse begins in February.

But don't feel bad when your resolutions inevitably fail. We actually don’t have free will.

Before you use your "free will" to argue with me — and science — consider this: In the early 1980s, Benjamin Libet conducted experiments using EEGs to show the brain decided to act before the study participants were aware they were deciding to act. Basically, the brain started doing its thing before people became aware of the actions they were about to take.

It is a little disconcerting to think our brain is telling us what to do before we do it. If you're still reading this article, your brain is responsible, not your perceptions of the conscious choice you made to continue reading. Are you with me so far? Your brain is.

And yes, you could stop reading, but your brain would have already told you to do that, too.

Now, since I'm addressing only those whose brains are cooperating, why does it feel like you're still voluntarily reading?

Let’s start with the brain and what it does. A brain’s main job is to keep us alive and safe. It predicts what's going to happen in the world outside, and it’s very good at its job. A brain with a lifetime of experience has a pretty good idea of what is safe and what isn’t. It keeps us breathing, keeps our hearts pumping, helps us sleep when we need to, and it tells our bodies how to digest and process the food we consume. Free will doesn’t mean much after gorging on street tacos.

Our brains are also very good at evaluating and interacting with the most dangerous of all creatures: other human beings. The reaction to a dangerous situation happens instantly. There isn’t any thought or free will involved. We react without thinking, and without necessarily understanding why a person or a situation makes us feel uncomfortable or unsafe.

Not only do our brains decide things for us before we even realize it, society also negates free will.

Laws, and their enforcement, structure society in a way that prohibits deviation. Social norms and cultural pressures prevent unwanted behavior. We congregate in groups, but in order to remain part of a group, we must conform to its standards of behavior. It doesn’t matter to which group you belong; its precepts dictate your behavior if you want group acceptance.

Social justice warriors are just as dogmatic as fundamentalist religious believers. Die-hard Republicans are just as dogmatic as die-hard Democrats. Families can be the most dogmatic, because family groups or tribes are integral for survival.

So where is our free will, and how do we exercise it? On this, the last day of 2017, I’m happy to report our free will indeed exists, and it resides in the stories we tell about our past.

Strange to think that the past is our key to free will, but it is. We are used to the past being used as a mechanism for implementing the loss of free will in our dystopian futures. George Orwell’s “1984” was all about manipulating the past to foster Big Brother’s current efforts. Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” modified the past to turn the Ford Motor Co. and the Model T into a new religion. Yet these novels show us something we fundamentally understand: the narratives we use to remember the past inform and dictate our future. And residing within the narratives we tell ourselves is our free will.

One of our daughters is struggling with some life changes and my wife gave her this example of the power of narrative: Most adults have their 9-11 remembrance stories, but how does the story of someone who witnessed the tragedy on television here in Utah compare to the story of a survivor of the tragedy, who had been on the 67th floor of the World Trade Center when the first plane struck? Perhaps that survivor lost his legs. Would his story resemble the narrative of a member of Al-Qaida across the ocean? And what if the narrative of the survivor was that he felt utterly blessed that he'd survived, allowing him to be with his family and loved ones? But perhaps another survivor, injured in a similar way, felt an all-consuming bitterness and anger toward fundamentalist Muslims for destroying his life.

Of the two survivors, which survivor's narrative would lead to a better life and a better society as a whole? Because our narratives don't just impact us; they impact all around us, and the ripples go out, beyond our control.

The stories and narratives we create about our past dictate how individuals and groups react to future events. By the time the narratives become entrenched, however, it's too late —our ability to exercise free will has been lost. Our brains and our tribes will just take over.

With that in mind, as we embark on 2018, instead of resolutions, look back on the past year and use your free will to create some new New Year’s narratives to guide us happily and safely through the coming year. (And I thank your brain for making you read all the way to the end, even though you really didn’t have any choice.)

Happy new year.

E. Kent Winward is an Ogden attorney. Twitter: @KentWinward

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