Does free will exist? I pondered this question a lot.
My interest in free will goes well beyond existential; I want to know if people deliberately choose what they do, or if their actions are driven by a cosmic force that is beyond their conscious control.
I wanted to know if my parents chose to abuse me.
My Story In A Few Paragraphs
At age twenty, I left Taiwan for the United States. It was the realization of the grand escape that I had diligently planned for many long years. When I decided that I would leave for the US, I was just a small child, but there was never a question in my mind that I would make it, and that it would be a one-way ticket.
The alternative for me is worse than death.
My father is sadistically abusive, and he is delighted to see people suffer, his own children are no exception. Both my parents believed that since they gave us life, we existed only to serve their needs. They reigned over us like vicious emperors toying with gladiators ― they propped one up while putting another down, provided insufficient resources (i.e., school supplies), so if one has it, the other does not.
We were all abused, but we also had to fight each other for scraps of approval and basic material needs. It was a hellish existence, and I could not wait to get out.
Even though I was physically safe in the US, I was still reeling from the aftershock of their horrendous abuse. I often woke in the middle of the night, drenched in a cold sweat from horrific flashbacks where I was mercilessly beaten yet could not defend myself. Other nights, basked in anxiety and depression, I simply could not sleep.
If you think life is challenging, try dealing with it while suffering C-PTSD. I hated my parents for what they'd done with a vengeance; if my fury could burn, they would be roasted alive from across the Pacific Ocean.
The Rabid Dog Analogy
During this time, I also started therapy. At the advice of my therapist Mike, I cut ties with my parents. Mike also suggested that I should try to let go of anger.
“Would you be so enraged if a rabid dog bit you?” he asked.
“Obviously not,” I replied, “The dog is sick. It can’t help itself.”
“Your parents are sick too. They are so sick that they would abuse their own children.” Mike said, “Do you think they are any different from the dog?”
I was silent for a moment ― I admitted that he had a point, but I wasn’t entirely convinced that his argument was valid. After all, we’re humans, not dogs. We have higher cognitive functions; we can reason, we have free will, and we choose what we do, don’t we?
In my father’s case, unlike a rabid dog that bites indiscriminately, he is polite to his boss. He reserves abuse only for his own family, behind closed doors. Isn’t this evidence that he “chose” his victims?
I did not know at the time, but it turned out that Mike’s analogy might be closer to the truth than I thought.
If We Live In A World With No Free Will
In recent decades, as scientists have gathered more evidence on the inner workings of the brain, most agree that free will does not exist. Scientists now believe that all human behavior can be explained through the clockwork laws of cause and effect, a combination of our genetic inheritance (nature) and events in our lives (nurture).
When I look back at my childhood, I distinctly remember that even though I was little, I knew, without a doubt, that what my parents did was wrong. I also knew that I did not want to become them.
I can’t take credit, though, for making “the right choice.” I did not choose ― I wasn’t aware that other options existed. One only “chooses” when there are at least two options.
If I were to put myself in my father’s shoes, I suspect that something similar might have happened when he was a child. When my grandparents abused him, he probably thought that he had to obey. After all, good kids are supposed to listen to their parents, aren’t they?
He might also have thought that when he grew up, he should go for the power position to inflict pain on others. After all, isn’t controlling better than being controlled?
Like me, my father probably didn’t know that another option existed.
We were just kids.
And we both defaulted to the only way we knew.
Our paths diverged.
Had we both had loving parents, my father, with his unconditional trust towards his caregivers, might have excelled. After all, why push against benevolent, wise guardians that have their best interests at heart?
But in an abusive, totalitarian system, obstinate, rule-breaking, naughty kids like me have the advantage.
My father and I were each thrown into impossible circumstances when we had no means to leave. We both did what we thought we had to do to survive.
Perhaps he was destined to pass on abuse, just like I was destined to rebel against it.
What It Means For Victims
So, if the scientists are right, then we humans are more like robots than we’d like to believe. In a world without free will, abusers and all types of bigots are “cowardly bots” that target whomever they think is in a weaker position than them. It is no surprise that women, children, LGBTQ, minorities, poor, disabled, overweight people, etc. are often victims.
And just like what we do with broken machines that are dangerous, we can take them off the market.
We don’t have to “hate” abusers to take decisive, smart actions. Hate and other strong emotions hijack our amygdala and prevent us from reasoning.
Instead, we can calmly and rationally “choose” what we will do next, knowing we only have control over ourselves, not others. Just because abusers might not have chosen to abuse us out of their own free will does not mean we should act like sitting ducks and endure more punches.
We don’t have to allow bad behavior to continue if we have the power and capacity to change it.
Most of my anger towards my parents was based on the assumption that they deliberately chose to harm me. In a world with no free will, it is hard to get angry at them. Instead, I feel more pity towards them than anything. Their combination of nature plus nurture has condemned them to harm others, yet they remain unable to see what they’ve done, apologize for it and make amends.
They are the kind of bot that cannot learn and cannot change.
"When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over. He does not need punishment; he needs help. That's the message he is sending." — Thich Nhat Hanh
Knowing this helped me forgive my parents and let go of the resentment that ran like poison through my veins. I can finally cut all ties, not only physically, but energetically as well.
Why I Am So Grateful
That fact that free will is likely only an illusion makes me extra grateful for the blessings in my life. Yes, I was born with horrible parents that no child should have to endure, but I was also gifted with the ability to self-reflect, learn from experiences, and heal myself.
I didn’t “earn” these gifts; they were given to me. Even more amazing is that both my siblings have the same gifts, so we can all come out of the experience wiser and stronger.
And, of course, I am infinitely grateful that I stumbled upon the right path. I would hate to live a life where I believed putting others down is the only way to feel okay.
It’s instinctual that as victims, we feel that abusers must have made a deliberate choice to harm us, because we seem to be in possession of our own minds, and we feel that we have free will, but science points to a different truth – we may be more like bots, destined to behave in a way befitting our nature and nurture.
If we were born with exactly the same genes (nature) and raised precisely the same way (nurture) as another person, we would have no choice but to behave just like them. We basically become them, atom for atom.
And perhaps, this is the best argument why there is no reason not to forgive.
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My name is Yumay Chang, and I run Life Is Love School, a global support group for childhood trauma survivors. I had a challenging childhood, and I know what it’s like to feel not good enough and not lovable. I learned through over two decades of research and plenty of trial and error how to heal so I can live a life of joy, love, and purpose. Now I help women that are successful at work but are unfulfilled in their personal lives do the same so they can also shine their brightest.
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