One of the greatest abilities we have as humans is the ability to make decisions and determine the path of our own life. This freedom is naturally occurring and when groups have attempted to take it away, or have taken it away, throughout history it leads to great destruction through war as the oppressed try to regain that basic freedom. Some call this freedom will, others call it agency, but it is the same concept. The reason agency is so great is that it is freedom. Real freedom is the freedom to decide from moment to moment between whatever choices are presented. Sometimes this ability to choose is impeded by an outside force, but it is only impeded by the choices made available; the ability to choose always exists even if only in choosing how to think about something. Because of this freedom, two people can have similar experiences and be presented with similar choices to be made and the two people may choose differently. Each will be influenced by their personal environment and experience, but they are still free to choose.
Over the last few weeks I have read three books. Each book was an auto-biography/memoir. Each author related an account of their childhood, to varying degrees. Each author related feelings about their personal career choice and how it effected them. Each author described his feelings about being a father. One author is a professional baseball player, one is a U.S. Navy SEAL sniper, and the third is a former gang member from Los Angeles. Interestingly, two of the authors experienced difficult childhoods with less than ideal family situations, and two of the authors found careers in killing other people, but these weren’t the same two authors. One of the authors who reported what sounds like a so-called normal upbringing makes a living dealing death, while one of the authors who experienced traumatic events as a child lives a peaceful life. I’m not doing justice to the three authors or their stories in making these comparisons, but I find them to be very interesting.
The first of these three books is called Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity, and the Perfect Knuckleball, by R.A. Dickey, 2012 Cy Young award winner and Major League Baseball pitcher. Dickey eloquently provided intimate details of his life. He tells his experience just as it was, not for sympathy, but for the purpose of telling his story. It is inspiring to read of the difficulties he faced and the strength he found through faith to overcome his trials. As a child Dickey dealt with his father leaving the family and his mother seeking refuge in alcohol. A babysitter molested him when he was eight years old. His childhood, though not as bad as some, was certainly not ideal. Throughout his life he struggled with his thoughts and feelings of self-worth because of what happened to him as a child, but by making good choices and working hard he didn’t repeat the experiences he was born into. He struggled with his confidence as a father, but he stuck with it, not wanting to repeat the experience he had with is father.
Next I read Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member by Sanyika Shakur. An interesting read from a sociological/psychological perspective, but only in this sense. Shakur provides great detail into his chosen career of gang life. He describes it as a career. Starting at age eleven he rose to neighborhood popularity by committing atrocious acts of depravity and murder against rival gangs. While I do not condone his acts or applaud him for his seeming lack of personal accountability, I do think his story is very valuable. He wrote this book while in prison and at times almost seems to take responsibility for his actions and condemn gang life, but then in the end he blames everyone but himself. I can appreciate the influence he was under, but it doesn’t excuse the choices he made. He had several siblings who didn’t turn to criminal behavior. What he tells of his childhood prior to his gang life shows domestic abuse and neglect from his father, who he finds out later in life is not his biological father. When he becomes a father himself he struggles with what that means and makes the decision not to repeat the behavior of his father and step-father. He reported that he enjoyed living the gang life, which included killing people. It is easy to see how his community and family life were difficult, but they do not justify his choices.
Finally, I just finished reading American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal
Sniper in U.S. Military History by Chris Kyle, a decorated veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Of these three authors, Kyle recounted the most normal childhood, with a disciplined father. While Kyle’s career is based on taking the life of human beings, it isn’t criminal. He told of his career choice with the SEALS and of his experiences over four deployments in war. Kyle is forthright with his struggles as a husband, SEAL Team member, and a father.
I want to point out right away that I respect Kyle and the U.S. Military in general for the sacrifice and patriotism and love of freedom that they hold. I admire the hard work and dedication that soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen put in, just like Kyle did. I don’t want to come across as comparing Kyle and Shakur in any way more than to point out some similarities in their writings, but the comparisons are interesting. Each claims to enjoy killing people. Each feels justified in his killings. Each kills in defense of his community (Kyle’s community being the United States and Shakur’s community being his neighborhood in L.A.). Each is extremely loyal to his group (Kyle the SEALS and Shakur his gang). But the work they each do is extremely different in context, and their childhood upbringing was different as well.
Dickey and Shakur appear to have had worse experiences as children than Kyle, but Kyle and Shakur are the ones that ended up in violent lifestyles. Kyle’s childhood seemed pretty decent compared to Dickey’s, but Dickey has lived a life of non-violence. All three struggled with personal relationships and becoming fathers, yet all three became fathers and at least as of book publication each was fulfilling that role (some leeway on Shakur as he expressed the desire to dedicate himself to his family, and was reportedly doing so in between stays in prison). I don’t know what conclusions to draw, but the themes that intertwine through these three lives fascinate me. Each has had environmental effects to deal with including the choices made by parents and neighbors. They were all three influenced by these other people. But all three were accountable for their own choices, and each one made choices. Their lives are dramatically different and yet a common thread runs between them.
As we all contemplate the social direction of this country and the world, I think it is useful to consider the lives of different people and how they respond to the experiences they face. Consider how people use their agency or will. Consider how you use your freedom to choose. We will not be able to regulate compliance from every person because we cannot regulate freedom to choose. We can legislate consequences for certain choices, but we cannot regulate choice. I thought I’d have a more concrete report to write on this topic, but it seems not to be so. It is fine, I always find clarity in the process of explaining myself and discussing a topic with others. It is all part of the process.