By Alicia Brosseau
In “Consider Ethics” (2011), Bruce Waller writes, “We are not entirely self-made and self-chosen — our desires, affections, and inclinations are the product of our genetic and conditioning histories — but in some of our critical choices we make special free creative choices.” I did not have to look far to find support for Waller’s statement. My entire adult life thus far has been comprised of a series of freely willed choices, made with the goal of raising myself out of the cycle of poverty in which I was mired as a child. In the following paragraphs I will give numerous examples of how free will enables us to either improve our lot in life, or to worsen our circumstances.
For the majority of my formative years, I was raised in Portland, Maine. My mother and I lived in a Section 8 housing community. No matter how much she worked, there never seemed to be enough money, especially as my absentee father contributed little to nothing toward my support. Being poor seemed normal to me, though, because I never knew any different. In the neighborhood we lived in, we were surrounded by poverty, and the only kids that I knew had similar stories to tell.
My father was an alcoholic who spent most of my early childhood in and out of the local jail for things like assault and driving under the influence. When he did decide to come around, he would always take me out to do enjoyable things that I never got to do with my mother. My dad seemed larger than life to me, and the combination of fun excursions and the complete lack of discipline led me to idolize this mysterious man. The only time my father would reprimand me was when I would cry. He would say things like, “Don’t you want to be tough like your dad? I never cry. If you’re tough you don’t cry. It’s a sign of weakness.” I wanted more than anything to grow up to be tough like my dad.
I started fighting in elementary school. I thought it would be the perfect way to prove to my dad that I was tough, just like him. I dreamt of the day my father would come take me away from the poverty and abuse that I endured at my mother’s house. I’m sure she partially blamed me for our circumstances. If not for my existence, she wouldn’t have to work so much, or be so poor, and she’d have more freedom. She resented me because I reminded her of my dad, about whom she still has many unresolved feelings.
Shortly after I turned seven, my father was sentenced to seven years in prison for a terrorism charge, aggravated assault and domestic violence, thus bringing my hopes of rescue to an end. I spent the next six years constantly acting out. I was as bad as I possibly could be, both to impress my dad when he got out and to vent my hurt and anger. When I was 10 years old I started to smoke pot, drink alcohol and steal. My relationship with my mother continued to deteriorate. When I was 11 years old she decided that she didn’t want to deal with me anymore.
She began to go through the proceedings to put me in to foster care. My grandmother and my aunt on my father’s side came and took me to live with them in Windham before I ended up in the foster-care system. They didn’t want to risk the chance of losing touch with me when my dad was finally scheduled to get out of prison within the year. He got out a year and a half early on good time, and as soon as he had a place to live I finally got to live with him.
Living with my dad was not the happy adventure I had dreamed of. He went right back to drinking all the time. He would have fits of rage that were not always directed at me, but whenever I spoke up or stood up for myself he would beat me. Sometimes he would take off on a drinking bender and leave me for a week at a time with only 20 dollars to feed myself. At this point I was 13 years old. I ended up spending the next three years bouncing between living with my abusive mother, living with my abusive father, and running away. When I was 16 years old I was living with my dad. I came home one night and he had given my bed away to one of his girlfriend’s friends. He told me that I would have to start sleeping on the floor.
In my first positive act of free will, I moved out and have supported myself ever since.
It would seem that all of the experiences in my life leading up to that moment could be construed as deterministic forces: the experience of poverty, the family history of alcoholism and abuse, bad decision making, and other negative cultural influences. In my experience, many people who have had similar childhoods end up in the same situations as adults. I have many friends who have had children at very young ages, and they are all living off the state just like they did growing up. Others are currently in jail, or have been in and out of jail their entire adult lives.
By using free will, I have avoided these pitfalls. I made the decision to quit smoking and drinking cold-turkey. I stopped stealing and fighting. I chose to stop hanging out with the friends that I had grown up with, because I knew that they were going to be a negative influence on the new life that I have been trying to create for myself. I made the choice to put myself through college to gain an education. Neither of my parents have any higher education, nor do the majority of the people that I was close to growing up. Making these choices has not been easy, but I have accomplished these things all on my own and by my own will. Instead of letting my upbringing and cultural experiences dictate my future, I have taken control of my life. I have, as Waller would say, “the power to act in accordance with my own will.”