The human mind is very complex. Our thoughts and emotions lead us to make choices. However, are we really making choices or simply following the instructions of our internal drives, making us believe we are actually deciding for ourselves?
By Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, MD
One of the components of the spirit is the uniquely human ability to choose your intellect. In contrast, animals have no choice because they are dominated by their strong bodily drives. They cannot choose on the basis of right and wrong, good and evil. Freedom to choose our actions is distinctly human.
Some psychologists maintain that human behavior is on the same plane as that of animals, and that our freedom of choice is an illusion. They argue that humans have a number of drives, and when some of these conflict, the stronger one wins. They claim that because we are conscious of what we are doing, we may think we are making a free choice, but this is an illusion because our choices are really the result of internal drives.
Choice is Greater than Instinct
I do not subscribe to this theory. Rather I believe that our entire concept of human responsibility is based on the assumption that we are not at the mercy of our impulses, that we do have the freedom to choose and determine much of our behavior.
The freedom to choose is one of the most cherished human values. That is one reason why slavery is so abominable—because it deprives people of their right to make choices. Most of our waking hours are spent making choices. We choose what to wear, what to eat, and with whom to associate. Even when we get up and go to work, we have made a choice.
A Better Choice
Not only is it important to protect our right to choose, but it is also important to understand why we choose the way we do. To do that, we need to understand something about the intricacies and marvelous ways in which the human mind operates.
We know that the body has many defenses against disease. Many diseases are a result of the failure to the defense system. We are constantly surrounded by a host of bacteria and viruses, many of which can be lethal. Indeed, we carry some of these in our bodies yet we may be in excellent health. The reason for this is that the body’s defense mechanisms keep these pathogenic germs at bay. When a germ tries to invade the body tissues, the immune system attacks it and white blood cells from remote parts of the body go to the site and destroy the germ. All the while, we are totally unaware of the defenses that are operating to protect us from disease.
Most of our waking hours are spent making choices. We choose what to wear, what to eat, and with whom to associate.
Much the same happens psychologically. Similar to the physical defenses of the immune system and the marshaling of white blood cells, we protect our conscious minds from ideas that are alien to us, or feelings that would cause us great anxiety, by diverting them from our conscious minds and depositing them into our unconscious minds. The psychological term for this is repression and it occurs even when we are not aware that we are repressing something. The problem is that repressed ideas or emotions do not just lie there, but rather like a jack-in-the box, they accumulate until they are pushed upward and seek expression. The repressive mechanism is the psychological lid on the jack-in-the box, and when that mechanism no longer works, the results may not be what we would choose.
On the other side of the continuum is the possibility of suppressing an idea or emotion. Suppression is different from repression because when we suppress something, we are aware that we are suppressing it. In other words, we are making a conscious choice.
Look at the difference between suppression and repression of anger. A boss provokes an employee who becomes very angry. The employee has an urge to tell the boss what he thinks of him, but realizes that this would cost him his job. In order to keep his job, he chooses to suppress his anger. He is well aware of it.
The employee understands that, as a human being, he has an animal body, and that in the animal, anger is associated with the urge to attack. He may further reason, “Okay, that urge comes from the animal component of me, and I am not a horrible person for having this urge. But I am a human being, not an animal. I can control my behavior; I can make choices.” He can then make the choice to suppress the thought.
It is the human spirit that enables us to be masters over our instincts. By suppressing rather than repressing, we exercise a degree of control and choice that contributes to our spirituality and, ultimately, to our happiness. Every time we exercise our ability to choose, we are fulfilling ourselves as spiritual human beings.