By Alberto Aleo
‘Will is Power’ the Romans said. How many times have people said that to us, perhaps a coach, a boss or a dietician? Perhaps we felt unable to refute the apparent truth of this motto, but inside – I am sure – at least once our life we thought, ‘If only that were true!’
Willpower and sense of duty
While the claim that having the will and the power to achieve something are one and the same appears convincing to super coaches who are experts in self-empowerment, can it really be put into practice by us mere mortals? The attempt to actually find a way to combine the two that goes beyond slogans seems a worthwhile challenge. It is undoubtedly true that some people succeed by sheer willpower where others fail. Often, however, will and power are used interchangeably even in relation to another word that is ‘duty’. The apparent ease with which one is replaced by the other does not, however, exactly leave the meaning of the phrases unchanged, indeed it seems to reveal a totally different approach to what we are describing. If, for example, I say, ‘I must have dinner with my wife tonight’, this in no way resembles ‘tonight I want to have dinner with my wife.’ In other words, communication theorists would seem to be asking the following question:
How many of your choices are really free if you are using the verb ‘must’, which suggests duty? And again, how often is willpower confused with commitment, and a sense of duty?
Thinking back over my life I realize that I was born and raised, at least to the age of 14-16 years, in a world of duties. Both the education received and the environment in which I grew (I attended a Catholic school) made ample use of the verb ‘must’ when teaching the basic strategies of life to the younger me, in an attempt to instill a sense of duty, from which it was assumed I would automatically develop my willpower. Yet the transition from one to another was not exactly painless.
The awakening of willpower
When I was about 16, like many at that age, I rebelled by replacing ‘I must’ with ‘I want to.’ The verb ‘want’ was actually so groundbreaking, that it burst upon my consciousness and threatened to tear my previous world apart. Whenever I found myself faced with a ‘must’ I felt compelled to oppose it with an equally powerful ‘want’ that changed the outcome but left me feeling alienated from everything around me and unable to apply any objective filter to what was required or asked of me. This was a phase of my life when I felt overwhelmingly confused, and you have probably experienced something similar yourself!
However, though torn between a sense of duty and willpower, I reached adulthood more or less intact. One of the most important changes that came at this stage of my life was starting work, and my previous efforts began to pay off. My new independence, including economic independence, helped me to develop – without my knowing it – a sense of power. I found myself saying (or thinking) things like ‘I can have something, therefore I expect to get it’. This could actually have been my belated revenge on the previous ‘world of duties’. The giant trap concealed behind this desire for a payback, which was to some extent legitimate, was that soon ‘I can’ ceased to be a reaction to the ‘you must’ of my past and began to correlate worryingly with ‘I want’.
Will vs power
So I began to want things just because I could have them or – perhaps even worse – because I could have them and others could not. You all know what I’m talking about: consumerism at its most chronic stage. I acquired not only clothes and accessories, but also beliefs and values, turning my renewed sense of power into a tool for self-determination namely a way to prove I had become someone of worth. Then one morning I got out of bed and felt the floor under my feet: it seemed particularly cold. I realized that my life had reached a place where I did not want to be. ‘Can’ and ‘want’ no longer seemed to be inextricably linked, and the relationship between them became increasingly complicated. My dear, old sense of duty returned and helped me break out of this stalemate. My mind began to conceive sentences like this: ‘What does it matter whether you wanted to, or could? It’s too late to ask yourself these questions; what you have to do now is get up and move forward’. For a while, you can get by without investigating any further, but then – if you are lucky like me – the bubble bursts and willpower, sense of duty and possibility split into different areas!
So, you have now read more than 800 words, and you might be expecting a fitting conclusion: something that solves the riddle of the coexistence of three powerful stimuli, of the verbs linked to the concepts of duty, desire and possibility. I’m sorry to disappoint you but I have not (yet) got an answer. I only know that for a while now I have moved into a different phase. I could call it an ethical phase, because it is based on moral questions that differentiate this period from earlier ones, allowing me to use willpower and a sense of duty simultaneously, but only when I ask questions. To better explain my situation I will sum up my thought processes when, for example, faced with a choice: I start by asking ‘Can I make this choice?’ then, I proceed with ‘Do I want to make this choice?’ If I’ve answered yes to both of the above questions then usually I tell myself that I must go forward, and I must do it not only as a commitment to myself (or an educator from my past), but to have the opportunity to bring my message to the world and share any possible good it may contain.
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