Thoughts On… Abuse + Free Will

I had an exchange with a couple of people on an Instagram post the other day. The post was about controlling parents and it presented the idea that when we emotionally separate from controlling parents, their response can tell us whether they truly love us or if they just love the control they have over us.

To me, the idea of entertaining the concept that if your parents have a problem with you setting boundaries then they don’t truly love you, is damaging. It might seem like the easy option: “Well if they don’t have my best interests at heart then they don’t love me.” I just don’t think it’s as simple as that.

I challenged this idea because I think it can be possible for parents to relish control over their children but still have love for them. The ways in which damaged people have the capacity to love is not cut and dry. It’s complicated. Does this mean we should keep abusive people in our lives? Not necessarily. Does this mean that abusive people don’t love us in their own fucked-up way? Also, not necessarily.

A woman replied that having children herself taught her that the abuse her mother inflicted on her was a choice and that she would never abuse her own child. Another echoed her sentiments: “Our parents had a choice, too – no excuse!”

Surely…if abuse was a choice…nobody would choose it? Surely, everyone would choose to treat others with unconditional love – if that felt like a choice. I’m aware this is a slightly controversial thing to say but I think I do believe that everyone is doing their best with what they have in any given moment, even if what they are doing is inflicting unimaginable pain.

“When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

On the surface, it appears as though humans do have free will. You can choose, as an adult, to cross the road safely or unsafely. You can choose Heinz baked beans or supermarket own-brand. You can choose to pay attention to the teacher in class or talk to your friends. But then you hear neuroscientists talk about how when we consciously make a decision, it’s actually already been decided a good few seconds prior on an unconscious level.

The concept I’m entertaining here is called determinism – the idea that everything is predetermined and that humans do not have free will.

“Numerous studies suggest that fostering a belief in determinism influences behaviors like cheating,” Dubljevic says. “Promoting an unsubstantiated belief on the metaphysical position of non-existence of free will may increase the likelihood that people won’t feel responsible for their actions if they think their actions were predetermined.” – taken from an article about free will

The reason I’m entertaining the concept of determinism (especially with regards to people who inflict abuse) is that it is a way for me to try and extend compassion and understanding to “abusers”. This does not mean that I think abuse is acceptable. This does not mean that the suffering endured by victims of abuse should be minimised. This does not mean that I don’t support anger and outrage in response to abuse.

It’s just that when I hear people, myself included, saying: “I don’t understand how they could do that” it’s because it might not have been a conscious choice. It might be pure, blind reactivity. If we can’t understand it, maybe it’s because we don’t know what it’s like to operate at that level of consciousness; to be that damaged; to exist in that person’s brain; to have your first natural response to someone be one of derision, ridicule, gas-lighting, humiliation.

I don’t know if what I’m saying is making sense and I’m aware of the potential for these words to hurt feelings but I’m just trying to express that I don’t think that this compartmentalisation of people into good and bad and the writing off of those who inflict harm on others is the answer. Maybe in the initial stages of coming to terms with abuse, for pure self-preservation and as a coping mechanism; in that case, yes it’s helpful. But moving forward as a species, how can we see these abusive people as anything other as damaged, helpless and out of control?

That passage I took from the article about free will brings up a valid point – that if we’re to suggest that people do not have free will and their actions are predetermined, it might unwittingly absolve people of responsibility for their actions. This is a serious thing to consider. I’m not suggesting we should all run around like animals (you mean like we do already?) and not think before we speak and act and stop trying to show up as our higher selves and go around saying: “Well, I can’t help it, can I?” Of course we should all take responsibility for our actions, continually learn from our mistakes and pay attention to how our words and actions affect others. But there are those who are damaged beyond repair.

I found out through my brother the other day that my Dad apparently no longer uses heroin – only Valium now (or street diazepam). I don’t believe he’s quit heroin because he’s lied to me many times before about his drug use. I found some Valium tablets in his room once when I was 13 or so and he told me he only used them to help him sleep while travelling. To find out he was still using them was irritating to me.

“I can’t believe Dad’s taking vallies,” I said to my Mam, thinking of all the patients who come into the pharmacy for their methadone who also get weekly diazepam. The kind of people my Dad would view himself as being superior to, when in reality he’s just the fucking same. We started talking about his abusive tendencies and she said: “He’s the most screwed-up person I’ve ever met.” This made me angry. As much as I want to talk through my issues about him (I was subjected to emotional abuse from him) – he’s still my Dad and she should’ve known better than to speak about him so maliciously around me.

“He surely canna* help it,” I responded. She said to me that she thinks he has no empathy. I don’t agree with this. I’ve seen him express compassion for victims of bombings and child victims of abject neglect and physical abuse. My Dad has taken care of me with so much compassion and care when I’ve been ill and truly doted on me in his more nurturing moments.

“Maybe he can’t deal with his own painful emotions so it’s even harder to acknowledge the emotions of other people sometimes. That would explain the Valium,” I said to my Mam. “Yeah,” she responded absentmindedly. I could tell it wasn’t really landing for her, though. For my Mam, it’s easier to assume my Dad simply doesn’t have the capacity for compassion or love and that he couldn’t possibly love someone that he would behave abusively towards.

But as his daughter, this is not my purview. Although I keep him at arms’ length and still have to deal with the emotional wreckage of the abuse that took place – I do ultimately believe that he was doing his best. And that he does love me.

Thanks for reading.

– SMUT. ❤

 

*”canna” is Shetland dialect for “can’t”

 

 

4 thoughts on “Thoughts On… Abuse + Free Will

  1. rainaducharme says:

    100%! I absolutely agree with you. It is not so cut and dry as “it’s a choice”. People who abuse in different ways are also hurting themselves. It is not until they heal their own wounds that they can begin to recognize the affect their abuse has on others and develop the awareness to choose differently.

    Liked by 2 people

    • smutandselfesteem says:

      Absolutely! Glad you could resonate with what I was saying. Pema Chödrön says our judgements hurt ourselves, too, so the same must be said for those who abuse others. When I saw someone had commented I got a mini heart attack because I was afraid someone would be mad at what I’d said 😂😂😂

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Rachel Hill says:

    I also agree with you. I always considered myself a good person and I did do my best and yet I would have made mistakes as a parent, especially when my son was a terrible teen. Also, people who are supposedly good and sorted can think they are superior and be really mean to others. Be kind… To oneself first, and then try not to be mean. People say forgiveness and acceptance are healthier and that hating others or holding onto resentments only hurts us. Your approach really shows what is means to put this into practice. Thank you and well done, perfectly written as always!

    Liked by 1 person

    • smutandselfesteem says:

      Thanks Rachel. That’s a good point about people being “holier than thou” in a way when they think they have a moral compass that always points true north. Forgiveness is still a goal for me that seems relatively far off but much closer than it would’ve been, say, 5 years ago. I think curiosity and the willingness to at least try to understand are a good place to start. I just don’t buy into the whole “some people choose to be good and some choose to abuse” – it simply cannot be that simple.

      Liked by 1 person

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