The Fetters of Free Will

I felt that I had a slight advantage when I went to my first wine tasting on my twenty-first birthday (my thinking: why wait one day more?). After all, I was that rare young adult who’d had family experiences with drinking wine since my childhood. Growing up Jewish, I’d been given a little bit of wine on Passover since elementary school.

Tragically, though, the only wine that had ever whetted my palate was Manischewitz Blackberry. For those of you who have never indulged, let’s just say that Manischewitz has a bouquet of children’s cough syrup and tastes like good fruit gone bad, with subtle notes of Listerine and cotton candy. 

And so my palate was unprepared for that first taste of wine which was not immediately followed by Hebrew prayers. The sommelier at the event lined up six tiny plastic cups in front of each of us, each containing a taste of a different red wine. “Now, “he enthused, “try them all and rank your choices from Best to Worst on your notepad.” I could easily determine my most and least favorite (yes, the worst had a definite Manischewitzian finish) but how I struggled with the middle four. The differences were so subtle that I grew really frustrated trying to distinguish among them. 

This wine tasting of over half a century ago came back to me vividly when I visited my ophthalmologist last week. I was given the common refractive eye exam where that large instrument with all the various lenses was placed in front of my eyes, with my doctor saying “Which one is better: One…or Two?”

I confidently selected Two.

“Now which is better: Two or Three, or Two…or Four?”

I hesitantly selected Three. 

“OK…now which is better—Three or Five, or Five or…” 

It was at this point that I wanted to bolt from the exam room, screaming, “I CAN’T TELL; I JUST CAN’T TELL! PLEASE DON’T MAKE ME CHOOSE!” 

It seems to me that some of the hardest decisions I have had to make in life are between things that have the least differentiation: selecting the winning essay from our past Dickens Student Writing Contests when at least half a dozen essays deserved an A+; determining which color to paint my condo living room among the 900(!) different shades of white (I almost went with gray because that dirty book says there are supposedly only fifty shades); and the agony occasioned by the dessert tray at an elegant restaurant where each selection seems identical in scrumptiousness and calorie count (roughly 600). And have you been to the toothpaste aisle at the grocery store lately?

That eye doctor’s appointment I mentioned was at 7:30 a.m., so when I returned home, I immediately showered and then had my coffee. And I noticed something, both when I was adjusting my shower temperature and when putting cream in my coffee. In each instance, there was no choice needed, therefore no indecision. My skin told me precisely when I had the perfect mix of hot and cold water, and my taste buds told me when I’d poured the perfect amount of cream that I desired into my coffee. Those two unthinking perfect “decisions” somehow gave me solace when compared to the nagging indecision of trying to find the right reading lens or selecting the perfect dessert from a waiter’s tray.

Those decisions made by our bodies — viscerally — are the ones where there is usually no error. We never have to think about just how quickly we should run away from that hornet that is about to sting us; no dog ever has to ponder whether to bark and growl at the intruder opening the front door; and the choice of whether to breathe or not is as simple for us to make as that between life and death. Instinct is the great mother of most healthy decisions.

It’s the purely mental decisions we must make all day, every day — from the myriad choices offered to us — that involve the worrisome risk of serious error. On the one hand, we delight in the freedom we all possess that gives us the ability to act at our discretion, by our own free will; on the other hand, our freedom to choose makes us solely responsible if the choice we make is a bad one. Perhaps our best decisions might arise from the intersection of our more visceral intuition with our more intellectual logic.

When I was first sipping wine as a pre-teen at Passover, I remembered a Sunday School teacher who introduced us to a short story by the great Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer, entitled Yentl, The Yeshiva Boy. This was long before Barbra Streisand would turn the story into her movie. Honestly, I do not remember reading the story, but I do remember a quotation of Singer’s that has stayed with me all these years. Using delicious irony, Singer sums up our risky human condition of being free to make our own choices, even though we might prefer not suffering their occasional awful consequences:

“We must believe in free will; we have no choice!”


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