One Day Ishmael Lost His Free Will

My imaginary friend Ishmael Gradsdovic related an interesting story to me:

All your talk about existentialism and free will reminded me of a peculiar experience I had several years ago. I’d just gotten back from a summer trip to Alaska and I was about to start a semester at community college. While I’d been away, my vehicle registration had lapsed and I’d come home to a bunch of threatening mail and accumulated penalties.

I went to court to try to clear things up, figuring that since I hadn’t been driving the car during the time it wasn’t registered, there was no harm and therefore no foul. I hoped the judge would see it my way. While I was sitting in the courtroom, bored and waiting for my turn, a bailiff walked out the door and due to some air pressure quirk in the courthouse the door slammed hard behind him. I jumped from the startling noise, and then I exhaled, eased back into my seat and waited for the adrenaline to wear off.

I’m not absolutely sure that was the cause of what happened to me, but I began to notice it soon afterward. The slamming door is the only thing I can think of that might have given a sufficient shock to my system to be responsible for the temporary paralyzing of my will.

I don’t know if paralyzing is quite right, but on occasion, I’d decide to do something or say something, then take notice of that fact, maybe even verbalize it internally, and then, in spite of my decision, I’d do something else entirely or nothing at all. It was eerie, and frightening, like being caught in a bad dream.

I use “paralyzing” as a metaphor precisely because it was so terrifying — it reminded me of stories I’d heard about people undergoing surgery where the anesthesiologist had mistakenly used a paralytic agent instead of an anesthetic, so that the patient was awake but paralyzed throughout the surgery and could feel every slice and stitch but could not move or scream.

I don’t think anyone else noticed the change. My personality didn’t undergo any great transformation — I more or less acted like I always had. There were times where I willed myself to do something and then did it, and I thought the curse was over — but it turned out that my will was only coincidentally in parallel with the automatic inclinations of the zombie I was living in.

At first even I didn’t notice. I sat there on the bench in the courthouse, daydreaming, waiting for my case to be called. The bailiff came back in and asked me to move down the bench a bit so that a woman using crutches could sit down closer to the door, and so I did. Finally my case was called and I stood up and approached the judge to present my case.

And it was only then that I noticed what had happened. You know how it is when you have some sort of confrontation and after the fact you think of some witty or pointed comment you could have made but didn’t? When I was talking to the judge it happened to me. But the difference was that I was standing right there at the time, and I thought of the thing I should say before I didn’t say it.

I was inclined to think I was imagining things. When I failed to do what I decided to do or say what I meant to say, I made excuses after the fact — blaming mixed motives, uncertainty, or subconscious desire for what was plain and simple bodily disobedience. I’d say to myself that I’d really decided to do whatever it was I’d actually done, and come up with some plausible reasons why. Or I’d just deny after the fact that I had any choice at all in the matter, telling myself I’d only done what I had to do. I’m reminded of the split-brain and other such experiments in which patients do bizarre things due to their brain lesions or other disorders, and then they retrofit excuses and reasons to explain their behavior rationally.

Then I started to suspect myself — I acknowledged that my will was being disobeyed but decided that it must not really be my will after all but only some fantasy “Walter Mitty” will. This “will” tended to be bolder, braver, more creative and more iconoclastic than my actions — so perhaps (I thought) it was just my fantasy of how I would behave if only I weren’t so pragmatic and cowardly.

Eventually (and it didn’t take long) I started to withdraw from the world. I couldn’t react to what I saw around me, so I stopped looking out my eyes and instead started paying attention to daydreams I concocted in which I could exercise my will. If I did pay attention to the world, it was with passive television-eyes. When I encountered things that demanded a conscientious and willed response, I quickly retreated back into daydreams, trying not to notice for fear that I would be overwhelmed with guilt if my zombie response did not match what my conscience demanded.

At other times I would grow bored of these daydreams and try to reemerge, or the terror of my situation would strike me again and I would mentally wake up and thrash about like someone who’s fallen asleep in the bathtub and slipped under the water, or like someone who suddenly regrets suicide and grabs for the noose after having kicked the chair away.

I’m happy to report that after several weeks my condition went away, as suddenly and inexplicably as it struck. It left me with the sort of new appreciation for life that you see in people who have survived brushes with death — and also a bemusement toward philosophers who try to imagine away free will and who are only able to do so because they’ve never had to deal with having it yanked away from them.


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