Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Monday, October 8, 2007

Pesky Will

"Will" is one of those perpetually pesky words in English. The OED lists four separate noun-versions of the word, with mulptile connotations within each of the four--and all of that precedes the verb-versions.

Then there's the philosophical/theological business about "free will," which offers one well worn path around the problem of God-and-evil. If God a) exits, b) is omniscience, and c) is omnipotent, then how can or why does God allow evil to occur? One answer is that God allowed us free will--and apparently took a step back, so to speak, to let us exercise it, even if we put our will in the service of evil.

The OED links "will" (with regard to "free will") to "desire"--wanting something, or wanting somethng to occur, or wanting onseself to do something. I tend to associate it with concentration, focus, even stubbornness--that is, not just desire but a kind of hard commitment to desire: will as determination.

I was reading The Rule of St. Benedict, as edited by Timothy Fry; the book is essentially composed of the guidelines and directions that established the Benedictine Order of priests. It's a communal contract of sorts, and much of it concerns the relinquishment of will--to God, to the community of priests, and to the leader of the community. To the mythic average person, religious or not, Catholic or not; and to the mythic average American, inculcated with ideas of independence and democracy, the book is--how to phrase this delicately?--counterintuitive. "Leave your ego and your will and the door," the book often seems to imply. Tough stuff.

I was particularly interested in a section that advises the reader on how to be an instrument of good works--which I think is a very interesting, valuable concept. How does one go about making onself an instrument, a conduit, of good works--of doing something useful or helpful for others, for the world? The Rule of St. Benedict seems to suggest that selflessness, or at least unplugging one's will for a moment, may be of assistance in this process. I liked the advice, but I also saw a paradox in it--namely, that one had to be determined (willfull, focused) to set aside one's will. One had to will oneself to keep one's will in check. The will is almost always there, it seems to me, perhaps even when we are asleep; one question is, then, how to manage the will, given that it's almost always with us. Conceptually, philosophically, theologically, linguistically, and practically, "the will" is one pesky little problem for us--never to be sorted out entirely. Or will it? :-)

Anyway, I wrote this little poem in response to my reading of The Rule of St. Benedict (Vintage edition). The poem first appeared in Christianity and Literature, September 2003.

Instrument of Good Works #59

(St. Benedict)

My will is good at what it does:
insist, persist.
I despise it as I hated
rocks I used to bust up
with a sledge-hammer at
the gravel-plant, minimum wage.
I loathe how my will prolongs
foolishness, knocks wisdom
aside, and belches pride. I will
pay attention to St. Benedict
and despise my will. I will.

Copyright 2007 Hans Ostrom
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