2 July 2016 – Do we really have free will / A note on staying in hospital on Shabbat
I like to think that my eldest daughter (aged 8) is mature for her age. ‘You know sometimes’, she said to me the other day, ‘it seems to me that you just don’t think before you do things’. ‘Yes, I know’, I said ‘that’s why I am going to hospital, so the doctors can find out why that is’. After all if when I take the drying out of the machine and some of it falls into the pile of dirty washing on the floor and then I wash both clean and dirty clothes in a new cycle and I do this time after time after time, it does look like I am not thinking. ‘But everyone has control over their thoughts, don’t they mummy?’ she said and I said, ‘I’m not so sure’ and she went away slightly perplexed. And even for an adult understanding that the truth is we don’t have as much free will over our thoughts and actions as we would like to think is disturbing. I once met a woman who was beaten up by her husband whilst she was pregnant but she still went back to him. I also met a man, suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder, previously he was studying to be a doctor, he had a wife and children who he obviously loved very much, but he fervently believed that asbestos was everywhere and couldn’t cuddle them and so slept on the floor – such was his anxiety that asbestos being could be on his bed or on his wife or children (he scrupulously cleaned the floor so he could sleep on it). Surely if they had enough free will the woman would have left her husband and the man would get back into his bed and study to be a doctor. Logically they knew that what they were doing didn’t make sense. But they didn’t have as much free will as they would have liked and they certainly couldn’t pull themselves together or snap right out of it – just like I can’t snap right out of my mental state.
Samuel Landau, a rabbi, wrote an article about neuroscience in the Jewish Chronicle a few weeks ago. Drawing from Rabbi Dessler he argued that we are all at different points on some sort of neuropsychological ladder or axis and we can use our internal resources (and maybe some drugs and whatever other help we need) to ascend or descend it. But we should remember that we are all at a different point to begin with.
Thus for some people it is genuinely harder to pass that exam, to speak kindly about other people or to not take advantage of those weaker than themselves. And for me, I start at a place of impaired cognition and I realise that life has been genuinely more difficult for me than it has for some others. And sometimes, even trying harder, has not worked. But we all start in different places and I, as many people do, will be trying to use the internal resources that I have to ascend this ladder.
A note about staying in hospital on Shabbat:
As an observant Jew on Shabbat I cannot use electricity or my mobile phone, use light switches and there is an endless list of other things as well (eg no harvesting of crops). We also have special rituals like women lighting candles to bring in shabbat and saying special prayers over wine. So it has just been Shabbat and over this period I have, more or less I kept to those things. It was very tempting not to use the electric button to put the hospital bed in a more upright position, but I did not. However, I am not a saint and I did watch Pretty Woman in the lounge because it was already on and there wasn’t much else to do (strictly speaking this is OK because I didn’t turn on the tv but it isn’t what we would call ‘in the spirit of Shabbat’). However the main difference about Shabbat in hospital and Shabbat at home is that in hospital it does not have the same qualitative feel, the same awareness that you have put all things aside and are dedicated to spending time with your family and friends, reconnecting and refreshing (although obviously if you feel like complete shit whether at home or in hospital you are still going to feel like complete shit on Shabbat – it isn’t a miracle cure). The saddest thing for me was that I was unable to light candles. The hospital were not keen on the idea(!!!) so I asked a rabbi what I could do instead and he said I could switch on an effervescent lamp and say the blessing on that. I did this but of course it wasn’t the same. Until tomorrow xx
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