Do you believe in free choice or do you think everything is pre-determined?
I watched and really enjoyed the film Sliding Doors last night starring Gwyneth Paltrow, John Hannah and co-starring John Lynch. It’s made me terribly confused though as I’ve always been a big believer in free choice and it suggests that everything is pre-determined. I’ve generally been a little dismissive of people’s arguments that 'it was destined to be’. Now I don’t know what to think!
In the film we see two completely different versions of how the life of the main character Helen (Gwyneth Paltrow), unfolds. In one version Helen drops her earrings in a lift, thus delaying her and making her miss a train connection. In the other version she doesn’t drop the earring, makes her train connection and arrives home unexpectedly early to discover her boyfriend, Gerry, (John Lynch) cheating. In the first version Helen remains ignorant of her boyfriend’s infidelity for some time, and on a later train connection meets James, who had initially picked up the dropped earring for her (John Hannah). A tight plot ensues, that I won’t spoil, but did enjoy.
The film made me reflect on how one event can massively impact on our lives. For example, back in the day, I didn't get in my first choice of university and ended up in, what the kids call now, their insurance choice. For me that was the University of Essex where I went on to meet the lovely Saint Mick of Thana. I had no idea back then how pleased I would be 30 years on to have not done well in my Economics A Level! This question about how free we are to make choices, in turn, brought to mind Robert Frost’s poem 'The Road Not Taken'. This happens to be one of my all time favourites so I’ll include it in full. (As an aside The Poetry Foundation have lovely audio versions of their poems, well worth a visit if that is your kind of thing.)
The Road Not Taken
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
On a first read the poem can seem a bit didactic, but I prefer to read it positively and take from it a helpful reminder that it is important to make active choices (rather than live passively) and to keep in mind that going for the easy option isn’t always the best thing to do.
I think I’ve always felt pretty in control and together about the choices I’ve made and I’ve certainly thought that I’ve had free choice to make them. My stance tends to be that if a choice is hurting myself or hurting anyone else and if it is going to prevent me achieving my long term goals and aims then it is a BAD choice and has to go! If a choice has short term disadvantages but long term benefits and if it can be tenable with support then it is a good short term choice. Finally, if a choice is for the long haul and is going to be in line with my moral code and impact positively on friendship and family relationships then it is a good choice.
It is pretty straightforward really isn’t it, except back to the film… at the end the two different storylines come together and suggest that what will be will be, regardless of individual choice. The film has an interesting and clever structure which is intended to show how events outside of our control can completely change our destiny. Therefore our ‘free choice’ is not very free at all!
Oh blimey I’m getting flummoxed, but I don’t think I buy that. Although we can’t dictate and predict life circumstances and there is lots that we can’t control, we do have free will to form our thoughts, create our moral compass and act according to our beliefs. The fact that ‘chance’ or ‘coincidence’ can affect outcomes doesn’t negate free will and therefore it cannot be used as an excuse for not making good choices. The poem reminds us that the choices we make are signficant and we should choose carefully. It is surely then supporing free choice. Having said that though, what was it that made the speaker go down the ‘one that wanted wear’?
My head hurts with all this thinking so there is only one thing for it. I’m going to use my free will to go find a nice healthy snack in the fridge, I know that is a good choice that I can make of my own free-will. If though a chocolate bar should inadvertently fall into my hand then … Ok, I know I don’t have to eat it!