Free Will, Family Emotional Process and The Matrix

Questions continue to bug me. Memorial Day was no different. I continue to wonder about how sensitive people are to one another. I wonder about the function of memories in how people are reacting to one another in the so called now. Is it possible that understanding how sensitivity builds requires us to question just how much free will is possible in families. (Free will is the purported ability of agents to make choices free from constraints.) How do we learn to see “generational family constraints” and not take “them” so personally?

One fun metaphor for understanding the sensitivity over the generations might be to imagine being an explorer of a software system kind of like Neo was in the movie, The Matrix.

It is a complex question to ask how much evidence is there that individuals’ decisions are based on some kind of reasoned choice? Are there decisions that are overly influenced by our memories or our “programming” from the past?

What about the pressure applied by others to see things their way? Even the nicest, well meaning pressure can trigger vague memories. Then people over react in a highly emotional way that seems unrelated to the incident.

These fragments from our past can be confusing.

It can be kind of like being in the matrix, as we never know were this or that reaction came from. It is hard to understand the reactivity. It is worth doing as it may end up guiding our behavior.

Often no real thought goes into our reactions. Negative reactions in our up close relationships make it difficult to have free will about a great many personal things. Only on reflection can we put some kind of an understanding together to make the past understandable.

In my family, for example, decisions around participating in wars have been anxiety provoking. That is one reason I am reflecting on this subject on Memorial Day. At least in my family it is a common experience for people to think and believe that he or she is freely choosing to join the army or not to join the army. I would suggest that there is often more to these kinds of decisions, especially if they are contentious, than meets the eye.

Is it possible to take the time to consider that the way we interact with one another is influenced by what occurred in past generations? Or when is a rose telling us more that jsut that it is a rose?

For those who can link one event with another it is not too challenging to see how behavior in one generation does have some similarities to what other generations “choose” to do.

The similarities between generations can show up in rather harmless ways, as in the way we name our children or in more problematic ways, as to should the father of the family join the war effort? Looking at the past to understand the future may be like making sense of footsteps in the sand.

Every once in a while a past memory shows up in the here and now, creating more chaos than seems rational. The reactivity about seemingly innocent things is a clue that the past is embedded in this moment. Our current relationships might become anxious traps without reflection. Can you see the thorns and the flower.

Our memory of what we heard or saw is vague. We can often recognize a Déjà vu moment. We see, or smell or even taste something that reminds us of a past event. Sometimes we react to what people say or do and only later see how some memory is linked to the upset. Memories pop into our awareness with reflection. Even thought memories are only fragments, they seem to influence our behavior in very powerful but vague ways.

Sometimes we are able to talk about an incident today that is like the one we had with great grandfather and think nothing of it. Sometimes we can over react to memories of the past. For example if our grandparents were fearful of horses, (great grandfather was kicked by a horse), four generations later people may refuse to let children ride horses. This ‘decision, reaction is often not connect to our long forgotten family story.

Seldom do we have the time, in our busy world, to reflect on such things. It often takes a big situation to throw us off enough, so that we will stop to look at the roots of our reactivity.

Most of us do not like irrational upsets, even if we do not connect these little incidents to our ability to have free will in social situations.

Another example of how easy it is to run into the memory matrix, woven into our sensitivity to the past concerns a man in his sixties, reacting to his wife, as he did to his mother fifty years ago. He says to his wife, “I am so mad at the way you slammed the oven door.” He knows his wife is not his mother. He realizes his wife’s act was innocent but it triggered an old memory from his uncomfortable childhood. Shall he consider how he got so upset or just stay in the moment and blame his wife?

Consider the matrix as a software system formed by generations of memories. Many of these memories are logged deep in our brains. The memories are not repressed. These memories are just un-integrated and are tied to old feelings making us feel more helpless than we are. Each generation builds the matrix. Each generation creates sensitivities and reactivity. Over the generations a few emerge with more awareness and have more ability to separate out from old patterns of behavior.

In the movie, The Matrix, our hero, Neo, was always getting tangled up with life and death challenges from the creators of the software. He was never sure who was real and who was a creation from the past.

Morpheus: I imagine that right now, you’re feeling a bit like Alice. Hmm? Tumbling down the rabbit hole?
Neo: You could say that.
Morpheus: I see it in your eyes. You have the look of a man who accepts what he sees because he is expecting to wake up. Ironically, that’s not far from the truth. Do you believe in fate, Neo?
Neo: No.
Morpheus: Why not?
Neo: Because I don’t like the idea that I’m not in control of my life.
Morpheus: I know *exactly* what you mean. Let me tell you why you’re here. You’re here because you know something. What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad. It is this feeling that has brought you to me. Do you know what I’m talking about?
Neo: The Matrix.
Morpheus: Do you want to know what it is?
Neo: Yes.
Morpheus: The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work… when you go to church… when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.
Neo: What truth?
Morpheus: That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else you were born into bondage. Into a prison that you cannot taste or see or touch. A prison for your mind.
I’m trying to free your mind, Neo. But I can only show you the door. You’re the one that has to walk through it.


Movies only last two hours but we live in continuous time making our own movies. There is an advantage to seeing one’s life as a movie. To do this takes a great deal of willful objective discipline. Reflecting requires us to be more objective and to continue to reflect on our lives from many perspectives.

Reflection is one way of seeking greater understanding of how the past impacts us. But understanding the rigging (or code) of the software requires more than observations. It also requires a good theory buttressed by facts.

Clearly people do not know what to make of vague links in conversations to the ghosts from the past. Not all of us can even see the ghosts, which pop up or come to life in fragments of worried conversations. The link to the past is often out of awareness. Some people are aware that the upset they feel is not linked to the reality of the situation. Small episodes can be easily seen as generating fear and blame that is not part of the intention of the people involved.

As noted “the shadow of the past generations” pops up in fragments creating a bit of chaos. As in The Matrix, you never know who or what is going to appear or where “it’ will come from until you witness or feel the anxiety.

Those who are motivated by the upset in the moment can learn a lot. They can begin to integrate the past in a more rational way to create a better family story. If done well, calmer relationships in the present will occur. Yes it is work, but it can also be fun to see and integrate the past with our daily lives.

I did some of this on Memorial weekend, considering the difficulty my family had in managing the events around WW II and how this impacts the way I think and act.

The war started December 8, 1941, one month after I was born. Here is a photo of me as a baby surround by my parents and my maternal grandparents.

In 1943 my younger brother was born. My mother did not want my father to go to war, and often pointed to his decision as the beginning of the end of their marriage. She had her reasons. She said, “We have two children and you are beyond the age for the draft. There’s no reason for you to do this.” His thinking and decision was: “My country needs me and I have to go.”

What were the past memories pressuring each player?

My mother’s father had volunteered for service in WWI. He was sent to France when my maternal grandmother was pregnant with my mother. The pregnancy was difficult and she was bed ridden for six months. She, at some very deep level, knew the toll the war had taken on her mother and on herself as an infant

As to the unacknowledged pressures on my father, his father had not been able to enter the war because he had flat feet. In addition his father’s overall functioning was not as high as my mother’s father. My father genuinely admired his father-in-law. He was then influenced by him to join the army, and follow in his footsteps as a commissioned officer. Both of the men liked this decision but the women were fearful. I saw the upset in the letters they wrote to one another during the war. I also heard her recount her feeling about this decision in the months before she died. The war was not a wonderful decision for my Dad. He did enjoy meeting Ernie Pile, the famous war correspondent, as you can see in the photo below. He was very attached to the men he worked with and was the first intelligence officer to fly during in a B29 during a bombing raid over Japan.

How much fee will was involved in my Dad’s decision to join the army or the way my mother’s fear focused on blaming my father for his decision?

Was my mother anger just about what my father was doing, or was her anger spiked by the past generations’ history?

The war imprinted all kinds of memories on my and others families for generations to come.

Before my father died he put many photos from his life in a book and attached the following note.

When I married, my spouse was in the military. It was peace-time. After the birth of our second child I became more fearful. Without connecting the history I was very anxious and negative about his going to Viet Nam. How much free will was involved and how much of the unrealistic anxiety during the Viet Nam war had to do with each of us blindly living out life in the matrix, or in our families unspoken sensitivities.

Over three generations no thought was given as to the influence of the past decisions on increasing anxiety in the next generations marriages. This story in my family is not unlike other stories in other families. The content may change but the process is similar.

Family wars are often little wars. They lead to misunderstandings, blaming, and polarizations between people but these little wars on y only impact a few. But perhaps understanding a bit more about one’s family could also enable us to understand more about society and the impact of social pressure on us all? Or perhaps it is too big of a leap to make at this time.

Mind body connections and the question of free will.

A smaller question is to consider the role of free will to control our bodies. At least here we can look at research to consider how much free will is exercised in lifting a finger.

What does research tell us about how our mind affects or does not affect the act of simply lifting a finger. Well it turns out that the conscious mind is half a second behind the firing of the motor neurons.

It is hard to believe our conscious mind is not in charge, especially of something so simple as lifting a finger. The first person who demonstrated how this unseen program functions measured motor neurons firings in relationships to people being given a command. Benjamin Libet (April 12, 1916 – July 23, 2007).

Libet and other researchers discovered that our conscious mind simply produces autobiographical explanations as reasons for our behavior after the fact. First, the motor neurons fire then we hear the speaking command we tell ourselves, “Lift your finger now”. For those who would like to see the influence of free will the research also notes that it may be that by saying “no” to an impulse we are exercising some kind of free will

In listening to clinical families I often hear the older people talk easily about how the past is similar to the present. They do not take the matrix so seriously. They can at least speak to the recurring themes in the family. It’s hard to say what those in the younger generations get from listening to the tales from the older ones. Often they seem to think if they do the opposite they will be free.

As a parent we may become aware of how hard we try to avoid being like our parents. In trying to avoid being like our parents, we may in fact just be dealing differently, but with the same intensity or anxiety about something, that our parents did.

The anxiety or intensity that we saw and felt in our own parents is still there within us and others can pick up on it even though we believe we’re behaving differently about that “something” than our parents did.

This shows up in different ways in different families. In one family, one generation drinks, the next generations reacts to the drinking and is fearful of alcohol and the third generation wants to experiment with drugs or other behaviors and so it goes back and forth and down the generations.

It is hard to see how anxiety is interwoven into the content of our thinking about our parents’ behaviors or the use alcohol and drugs, to name just a few content areas that get families anxious over the generations. It is hard to see how different or similar we are to our grandparents much less our great grandparents. But we can assume that each generation automatically reacts to or goes along with the past ways of doing things.

Seeing this automatic emotional process can be a freedom-enhancing gift.

The gift of mindfulness allows us to understand that the shocks and upsets in the now are some versions of what went on in the past.

When this happens we have integrated a bit more of what we see and feel with the past memory fragments. No longer are we caught in The Matrix.

We can see the connections with the past and then we are a bit more free to see the automatic pulls to go along with the past, and decide yes or no.
Awareness plus action can free us from ignoring or over reacting and then repeating the past. How wonderful!


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