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You Are Free, Like it or Not

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One evening I went with my family to a Thai restaurant for dinner. They seated us near the back, not far from the kitchen doors.

A very bubbly waitress brought us our menus, filled our waters and told us to let her know if we needed anything, or had any questions about anything at all.

When she came back, we ordered. “Perfect!” she said with a huge smile, taking our menus. She went off to the kitchen. As soon as she was through the doors, her voice changed. She was chatting with the staff and we could hear every word.

“Oh my God, I was so sick this morning! I couldn’t stop puking. My boyfriend had to hold my hair back for me.” She went on about the trip to bar, the shooters, the cab ride, the stupid friends who didn’t show up. Lots of details and swear words.

Then she came through the doors again, her waitress face back on, and took orders from a few more tables. She went back into the kitchen again. More profane banter. When she brought out our food, she had a wide, wholesome smile, and it was really hard not to laugh.

I didn’t know it at the time, but Jean-Paul Sartre had written about a similar scenario to illustrate a human tendency he called bad faith. His waiter at a cafe seemed to be completely under the spell of his role as a server. He moved too quickly, too snappily. He spoke about the daily specials with an enthusiasm that no food could warrant in real life. His gestures were so ridiculously waiterly that he seemed to have lost track of the fact that he was a free-choosing person, as if there was nothing to him besides his current role.

Sartre believed that we have much more freedom than we tend to acknowledge. We habitually deny it to protect ourselves from the horror of accepting full responsibility for our lives. In every instant, we are free to behave however we like, but we often act as though circumstances have reduced our options down to one or two ways to move forward. 

This is bad faith: when we convince ourselves that we’re less free than we really are, so that we don’t have to feel responsible for what we ultimately make of ourselves. It really seems like you must get up at 7:00 every Monday, because constraints such as your job, your family’s schedule, and your body’s needs leave no other possibility. But it’s not true — you can set your alarm for any time, and are free to explore what’s different about life when you do. You don’t have to do things the way you’ve always done them, and that is true in every moment you’re alive. Yet we feel like we’re on a pretty rigid track most of the time.

We often think of freedom as something that can only make life easier, but it can actually be overwhelming and even terrifying. Think about it: we can take, at any moment, any one of infinite roads into the future, and nothing less than the rest of our lives hinges on each choice. So it can be a huge relief to tell ourselves that we actually have fewer options available to us, or even no choice at all.

In other words, even though we want the best life possible, if life is going to be disappointing, we’d at least like that to be someone else’s fault.

When freedom is scary, we pretend it isn’t there

As soon as I learned about the concept of bad faith, I started noticing that I am guilty of it all the time. I might delay on a worthwhile-but-nerve-wracking phone call until it’s no longer an option to make, and tell myself the opportunity slipped through my fingers accidentally. I might pretend I didn’t hear a critical comment so that I didn’t have to decide how to respond to it. I often tell myself I can’t do any worthwhile work unless I have two uninterrupted hours to do it in.

I have a long history of bad faith. Maybe you do too. In high school, I remember deliberately learning as little as possible about scholarship opportunities, because I’d rather not apply for one than apply and see it go to someone else. Afterwards I might even complain that a guy like me could never compete with all the goodie-goodie students who schmoozed with the teachers.

I also used bad faith to rationalize my extreme levels of shyness, making life much harder in the process. Some part of me knew that being a functioning adult meant learning how to engage in small talk. But it was scary, so I told myself that small talk is all vapid and worthless, and I was abstaining from it out of principle, rather than fear. Like a lot of very shy people, I didn’t date in high school because I was afraid of rejection, but told myself it was because I had high standards.

We’ve probably all done this one: you’re dreading a to-do item because it requires a difficult decision. So you put it off, ignoring reminders you’ve set for yourself, putting less-important things ahead of it. You do this even though some part of you knows it has to be done anyway, and delays only make things worse for you. You make excuses why you can’t do it today — “I should get a better sleep before dealing with this” — even though nobody is fooled but yourself, and not even you benefits from your pretending you can’t do it yet. But you do get that hit of relief when you make a new excuse.


All of these kinds of behaviors are ways of denying our own freedom. If we acknowledged all of our options, the obvious thing to do might be something intimidating. Once you’ve acknowledged that it isn’t actually impossible for you to quit smoking, then you have to quit smoking. When freedom is scary, we pretend it isn’t there.

Bad faith is easier to notice in others than ourselves. You’ve almost certainly known people who complain about their situations, and insist that it is beyond their control when it obviously isn’t. When it’s really obvious, we call it a victim mentality. We tell ourselves stories that make us out to be hapless objects in the world — billiard balls on the table, rather than the players.

A former friend of mine perpetually expressed dissatisfaction with his overweight body, and had a shoot-down reason for every possible way to lose the weight. Running is bad for the knees. Restricting your diet leads to eating disorders. Lifting weights is for meatheads. Gyms are trying to rip you off. It was obvious these were not real barriers he ran into when he tried, but ways of arguing that his circumstances alone are responsible for his troubles, and that he was out of moves.

Essentially, all instances of bad faith are performances of some kind, in which we’re acting as though our hands are tied. We’re trying to convince ourselves (often by way of convincing others) that we actually can’t do the right thing, when in fact we simply won’t.

Life is a field, not a corridor

Bad faith leads to living inauthentically — living others’ values because you’re afraid of living your own. It is inherently self-defeating.

Sartre wanted us to really feel our freedom, as an almost physical sensation — the sensation of walking down a corridor, then noticing you were in a field the whole time. It is an exhilarating feeling to consciously go the other way at a juncture where you normally act in bad faith. It feels like you’ve unlocked a hidden area with new skills and possibilities, and that such secret rooms are everywhere.

Whenever you feel a sense of “this is just the way it is”, there is probably some bad faith there. For years I assumed I can’t expect to get any writing done after 5pm — the energy or focus just isn’t there, so I’m practically sentenced to spend the evening reading, watching something on a screen, going out or otherwise not working.

This is an old, self-defeating lie, and there’s no telling what it’s cost me. There’s no barrier at 5pm. The line is completely imaginary. There’s just a strong aversion to my work when I get close to that time of day, and I pretend it’s some kind of natural law.

Our lives are riddled with imaginary lines. Bedtime isn’t a real thing. It’s a choice, every time. Going to work is a choice. Eating lunch is a choice. Letting ourselves down is a choice. Meeting a deadline is a choice, and missing it is a choice, as much as we’d like to believe each of those outcomes was inevitable all along.

Noticing bad faith doesn’t cure it, but it makes it harder to ignore. We can let ourselves suffer certain problems for years, if we think they’re happening to us, the way weather does. But once you recognize a particular condition in your life as ultimately voluntary, its days are probably numbered.

I can’t describe to you how strong a feeling it is, but once it’s past 5pm, it truly feels like I can’t write. It seems like the part of my brain that does that is shuttered like a storefront on a Sunday evening.

But when I actually do sit down at six or seven or eight and start typing, the words come out like any other time. The door was always open, I just walked by it again and again and again.


Tunnel photo by Joe del Tufo. Sartre Photo unknown, public domain
Mhairi Simpson June 15, 2015 at 4:57 am

I actually had this conversation with my cousin just yesterday. He’s a trained NLP practitioner. I’m…something that doesn’t have a name yet. But that something strongly believes that every circumstance in our lives is a choice and I’d much rather see people make CHOICES than excuses. Which sounds harsh but it is what it is. Life is for living, not surviving.

BrownVagabonder June 15, 2015 at 5:47 am

I somehow feel that this thought ‘we’re freer than we think’ should be commonsense – that everyone knows this, but ignores it for some ignoble reason. But obviously it’s not. I hear words like ‘I have to’, ‘I must’, ‘I’m stuck’, and so on, from colleagues, and friends.
It isn’t just that we think we are stuck, but we pull other people down who are trying to leave or be free. Whenever I tell people about the freedom that I am working on, they always have something negative to say.

Tony June 15, 2015 at 7:19 am

It is what you might call “crab mentality”. Caught in a bucket, crabs who try to leave the bucket are brought down by crabs below, who aren’t allowed to leave either by their group if they try. Such are humans who feel bad about how their life goes: to try to put you on their level to justify their own incompetence or inability to accept responsibility: “If this wonderful person can’t seem to do it, how am I better?”.

You don’t have to submit to this. Marcus Aurelius wrote in his book To Myself (Meditations) to expect dire sides of humanity – selfishness, greed, ingratitude, disloyalty – yet persevere, because we’re human beings bound the same intelligence. It’s a great writing: if this one quote is any indication, his book is a trove of wisdom. You can read it here: http://classics.mit.edu/Antoninus/meditations.html (the idea I’ve expressed just now is the beginning of the second chapter/book).

I’ve found it a very inspirational saying: the idea that it’s fine to see those qualities even in the times of Ancient Rome, and that one has the strength to persevere and even help those who act vile to change their ways out of kindness and bond many don’t realize they have. Maybe you’ll find it as such as well.

Caroline June 28, 2015 at 7:23 pm

I really like this. Thank you

David Cain June 15, 2015 at 9:03 am

I think on some level we do know it. If we didn’t, it wouldn’t be bad faith because there would be no self-deception, just genuine ignorance. We tell ourselves stories (using constructions like “I have to”) to relieve us from responsibility.

As Tony mentioned, the crab bucket phenomenon is pretty common. When other people assert their freedom, it threatens our own self-deceptions about our own.

Free to Pursue June 15, 2015 at 11:40 am

My favourite spin on “I have to” or “I can’t” is “I don’t have time”. That one makes me chuckle every time because it somehow absolved the speaker, as if his/her time were not his/her own.

Burak June 15, 2015 at 6:04 am

Curios timing for this one, David! Just nowadays, I happened to have started re-thinking about some subtleties about the line between free-choice vs nature-nurture thing. This post has come on the way as a good layout for some of my thoughts, and I liked the conceptualization of bad faith.

Particularly, this part is quite a summary to me: “Bad faith leads to living inauthentically — living others’ values because you’re afraid of living your own. It is inherently self-defeating.” In a sense, isn’t it also a summary of what people call fashion? Or more generally, societal values. Societal definitions ranging from what we should wear to what we should be successful in are all our corridors whereas we actually have a field. And if you do not consciously choose for yourself, somebody else will choose for you.

Moreover, isn’t it quite a contrast that we tell ourselves that we do not have a choice as keeping on complaining about our bad faith, yet we do not let anyone dare tell us that we do not make free choices. We like to brag about how free we are in our choices while lovingly live within our comfort zones (which are -in reality- NOT comfortable at all) inauthentically. Well, on top of that, I am amazed at how I feel conscious about all this, at the same time being a relentless criminal of this self-defeating crime. Isn’t it ironic? :)

Thanks again for this helpful post for liberating from the shackles of bad faith.

David Cain June 15, 2015 at 9:06 am

It is weird how you can be aware of this yet complicit. A lot of our bad faith is simply a lack of courage. It feels unsafe to accept responsibility, and we can become very irrational when our security hardware is triggered.

Jill Malleck June 15, 2015 at 6:13 am

This is a beautiful articulation of an insidious problem, and one which I became aware of – as you say – in others first, and then in myself. I like how the Drama Triangle is a framework that explains the victim – villian – hero stereotypes. “We habitually deny it to protect ourselves from the horror of accepting full responsibility for our lives. In every instant, we are free to behave however we like, but we often act as though circumstances have reduced our options down to one or two ways to move forward.” This I find very strongly in clients whom I am coaching about work/life balance – getting them to accept responsibility for their every-day choices has been the most important thing. Thanks so much for an excellent post.

David Cain June 15, 2015 at 9:08 am

I’m afraid I don’t really have any solutions except to be more aware of it. There have been a lot of instances where I’m even saying to myself “Yes, this is totally bad faith here”, and I do it anyway. But other times it makes you wake up and do the right thing without hesitation.

Tony June 15, 2015 at 7:08 am

Wonderful piece. Just as I wanted to ask whether there’s anything else I should be reading from Monsiour Sartre, I caught myself realizing that I had access to philisophy books for the whole time and just never used it – main reason being I followed the same self-defeating worldview that you’ve just described.

I should thank you for writing about it at the precise time you did. Today, I’ve conquered my fears – not completely, but I felt confident inside the thing that terrified me earlier – and now I’m on the high wave. The idea of bad faith I know will sink in, allowing me to follow through my plans in a better way now and in the future because of good mood at the moment.

I’m curious. Many ideas you wrote about are centered around fear: we’re afraid to take responsibility, to feel/be different, to be misunderstood because of it, so on. Have you ever considered writing about fear itself, about that often the reason we fail at achieving our goals is because we’re afraid? Do you feel like in your surroundings people not recognizing their emotions – and/or fear in particular – is any kind of problem or a broad condition among those people?

Be the Best,


David Cain June 15, 2015 at 9:23 am

Sartre is neat. Start with this video from The School of Life: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3bQsZxDQgzU

It talks about three major ideas of his, including bad faith and the waiter example.

A lot of Raptitude posts have been about fear in different forms. It’s certainly been a huge theme in my life, and by the looks of it that’s normal. Modern human life has fewer real security risks than we seem to be calibrated for, so much of our struggle in life is mitigating fear’s exaggerated grip on us.

Tony June 15, 2015 at 11:00 am

Thank you for the link. I will check it out.

I understand that. Better phrasing of my question would be: do you feel like people recognize their fear of something more often then not?

Also, is it possible to receive e-mail notifications when I get a reply here?

Sam Yang June 15, 2015 at 7:17 am

So just as we take things on good faith, we also do the same for bad faith…

Sam June 15, 2015 at 7:26 am

A very well-articulated piece David. It is also ‘justifying’ – coming up with reasons why you can’t do something. I do it, my husband and kids do it. I notice when friends do it. We all do it and it’s very interesting to try and root out why.

Marco June 15, 2015 at 7:39 am

All I can say is Bravo. Thank you for the reminder that I must make better choices. So simple, so life changing. Time to get busy living again ~~
Hugs my Friend… : )

Luna June 15, 2015 at 8:02 am

I giggled numerous times to myself as I read this
all the things I’ve been putting off came floating down
so instead of spending the next 30 minutes goofing off online
before work
I’m off to do some of those things I had no time for LOL


David Cain June 15, 2015 at 9:24 am

Haha… sorry!

Jill June 15, 2015 at 8:32 am

Great, great post!!! Thank you. I will be thinking about this for awhile.

Anna June 15, 2015 at 8:39 am

Brilliant article!
I recently realised this myself and set myself the task in my morning pages to write down all the excuses I give myself….. If I had lots of money, if I wasn’t living in the countryside, if I wasn’t married to my husband, if I didn’t have kids, if I had time etc what would I do… Actually all the things were completely doable and most of the things I realised I didn’t actually want to do anyway. Now when I hear myself say …. I don t have time for that or I don’t have enough money i know that it just isn’t true! Xxx

David Cain June 15, 2015 at 9:28 am

This is why I journal sporadically. When you write out a thought, often it reveals how ridiculous it is. “I don’t have time” is a classic bad faith line. Of course we never just have time lying around, but often it’s enough to get ourselves off our own case.

Arthur June 15, 2015 at 9:58 am

Great Post! As always you managed to verbalize in a great manner something a lot of us feel. For the first time since I subscribe to your blog you talked about something I slept on a while ago, so I thought I should share a little trick a use to avoid falling into this trap of acting with “bad faith”.

I started noticing that throughout the day I would start many phrases with “I have to…”, when describing something I would do next. Eventually I understood how depressing that is and, truth be said, I am not obligated to do anything, so I shouldn’t act like I was.

My answer to that insight was substituting that expression with “I want to…” or simply “I will…” to anything I would do. And question myself how that related to something I want to achieve. It gives a sense of meaning to everything I was doing, so it felt better.

Anyway, thank you for having the blog, I like it very much!

David Cain June 16, 2015 at 8:54 am

I have done this too, and it makes a big difference. “I have to” is a big red flag.

matt June 15, 2015 at 10:01 am

A friend of mine used to be a chef and said that sailors had nothing on a chef or wait staff in the kitchen.

peregrin June 15, 2015 at 10:06 am

While I do agree with the rest of the article, I feel a bit uncomfortable with the example provided at the beginning. As a former bookseller I have some experience in the service industry and I often enjoyed putting my shit behind me and putting my head to the task of making someone elses day better. Just because the waitress put effort into her given task doesn’t mean she lost track of the fact that she was a free-choosing person and it seems a bit patronizing to assume she was.

Free to Pursue June 15, 2015 at 11:52 am

I can see your point. The day after my dad passed away, I was at work in our family-owned retail establishment and was verbally abused by a customer. She quickly apologized after her rant, explaining her behaviour away by saying that her dad had just passed away. I never said a word about my situation because that was a boundary I chose not to cross.

The truth in any situation can be murky.

Dan June 15, 2015 at 2:20 pm

This is a good point.  A performance can be as free a choice as any other.  True freedom, then, includes the freedom to “act” like a waitress, or to eat dinner at 6, or to compartmentalize one’s life…but, like David said, bringing that choice to conscious awareness is a crucial part of the equation.  And it goes beyond, “oh, I know I’m a waitress, that’s why I’m acting this way” to “I have a choice to stop acting this way at any point, or to act in a different manner than the stereotypical role as defined by waitress.” Then again, she could say/think, “I love the conventional idea of a waitress and am going to play the role to the hilt and have a great time doing it!” In the end, though, what we remain oblivious to has a tendency to control us (or, when truly seen, has an illusory control over us). On the other hand, sometimes the best roles are played by those who don’t know they’re playing a role!

And then we can go into the age-old debate of free will vs determinism. I’ve heard it convincingly argued that ultimate free will is acting (or, “choosing” to act) in accordance with the Tao (with the caveat that nothing can truly act outside/against it). And even if you fall on the deterministic side of things, as Alan Watts once said, you are the one doing the determining (since “you” go-with and are an expression of all-there-is). Again, maybe the importance lies in becoming aware of this and acting from there. Anyway, I didn’t mean to go down that road, but it seems somewhat relevant and interesting to consider.

David Cain June 16, 2015 at 8:57 am

I know what you mean and I am definitely sympathetic to that server. It was really funny though, to see two sides of what we were only meant to see one side of. I just included the anecdote because it reminded me of Sartre’s famous waiter example. We have no way of knowing whether it was bad faith for her, because bad faith is an internal relationship.

Mike Michaels June 15, 2015 at 10:27 am

David, really interesting piece!

How did you get good at small talk? Are there any tactics you use? I’ve always struggled with small talk, as it leaves me feeling like I’m performing, similar to the actions of the waitress you described. I’ve never liked performing.

David Cain June 16, 2015 at 9:03 am

I wouldn’t say I’m good at small talk, just no longer hopeless at it. It’s basically a matter of saying anything at all to get words flowing. Just notice how other people begin conversations and see what happens when you do the same thing. It might feel awkward at first, but it’s more awkward not to know how to talk to people. “How to Talk to Anyone” by Leil Lowndes is a good place to start.

Sangita June 15, 2015 at 11:04 am

Omg this is one of the BEST posts you’ve written! But David y u do dis? Y u make me face things? :)

tallgirl1204 June 22, 2015 at 3:29 pm

Sangia, u make me laugh! Why does david MAKE US face things? Because we have no freedom– we have no choice– we MUST open Raptitude and we MUST read and we MUST face what David makes us face!

This highlights an important aspect of “choice”– as human creatures, we are influenced by what we place in front of us– and it changes us in subtle ways. I just ate a bunch of potato chips at lunch (and when I say a bunch, well, yeah, it was). So now I”m living with the raging thirst of post-chip-binging, and tomorrow it will be even harder to refrain from eating just as many if not more again… so much better to have refrained from the first chip.

That’s a bad metaphor– but our choices in what we expose ourselves to build a pattern of our choices of action. Thanks, David, for being there to make us “face things.”

Dan June 15, 2015 at 11:49 am

And not just that it’s your freedom, but you need to truly believe/feel/understand that it’s in your power (not to get all self-helpy, but it’s important to get/feel em-powered). Marcus Aurelius has some helpful advice on the matter:

“Now it is within more power to let no badness be in this soul; nor desire nor any perturbations at all.”

“Consider that everything is opinion, and opinion is in my power.”

“Today I have gotten out of all trouble, or, rather, I have cast out all trouble; for it was not without, but within and in my own opinion.”

“Cast away opinion, and you are saved. Who then hinders you from casting it away?”

And, along those same lines, I think it was in Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit” book where Duhigg emphasized that belief in change was the first/crucial step in making a change (and making it stick). Again, it begins with a shift in attitude/perspective.

At the ground of it, one needs to realize that – while certainly influenced by societal/cultural forces – they ultimately create the value in certain things, and the appreciation/feeling of achievement from “attaining” what it is they value. Which means we also create that gap of discontentment (one might also call it “desire” and “suffering”) before or when it isn’t achieved/completed, or if one feels they “came up short.” Hmm, suffering and desire, now where have we heard that before…?

So, in the same way, we create those imaginary lines, and the reactions/responses and emotional connections and barriers associated with them. Cast away those imaginary lines, and you are saved.

Or, as the old saying goes:

“Man must save himself from himself.”

Dan June 15, 2015 at 11:50 am

Sorry, first Marcus Aurelius line should start/read:

“Now it is within ‘my’ power…”

Not “…’more’ power…” But, hey, just more power to you!

David Cain June 16, 2015 at 9:08 am

The Stoics were masters of ferreting out bad faith and other types of self-dishonesty. Can you imagine if the most powerful man in the world today thought like this?

Dan June 16, 2015 at 10:48 am

Absolutely. It’s stunning to go back and read Aurelius’ measured thoughts and principles of governing (and, really, living), and, yes, especially considering the magnitude of his position and comparing that to the leaders we’re left with today. Though, I have been pleasantly surprised by Pope Francis and his seeming to not only walk-the-humility-walk, but pretty strongly talk-the-charity/good stewardship/caring for the impoverished and each other-talk (even if he may not technically be the most powerful man in the world).

Free to Pursue June 15, 2015 at 11:58 am

This post makes me think of Peter Sims’ book “Little Bets“. In chapter 5 he introduces the concept of constraints and their usefulness in framing creativity. Using examples such as architecture and technological innovation, he shows that external and internally imposed constraints can help us create because these parameters give us focus.

I think the important point this idea raises is to question whether a constraint we impose on ourselves is a positive or negative influence in living our most fulfilling, “free” life.

David Cain June 16, 2015 at 9:12 am

There are definitely places where self-imposed constraint is useful. I remember making my mornings much easier by deciding to have the same breakfast everyday. There are lots of ways we can impose constraints on ourselves in order to improve focus. But these can all be done consciously and honestly. Bad faith implies a certain self-deception.

Ife June 17, 2015 at 9:55 pm

Being aware of the constraints we operate within is critical to making our own decisions. When you feel like you “must” go to college or you “must” have a car or “must” do anything, it’s important to ask yourself why you feel that way. Who or what tells you it has to be this way, and what are the consequences of doing something different? When I decided to cancel internet and cable, people couldn’t understand why I did it or how I could “survive.” It was difficult sometimes, but I found it was also very peaceful and allowed me more time to relax, and gave me excuses to get out of the house. (Of course, you’ll notice that’s all past tense, so I did eventually cave into the pressures of home internet once again, when I got a roommate who “required” those things. :)

Dan June 15, 2015 at 12:04 pm

Would also like to point out, whether or not consciously intended, how insightful and great the usage was of the word “sentenced” as an extended metaphor supporting the thrust of your essay.

We really do “sentence” ourselves…with mere sentences! Dinner is at 6. Bed at 11. I’m a waiter. I’m fat. I’m dumb. I can’t get any work done. I can’t write. I can’t do this, I can’t do that… We become “spell-bound” and are “enchanted” by what we tell ourselves. True to a sentencing, this is what “imprisons” us!

In other words, we let language create our reality, and live/act/behave/believe/perceive according to those string of words…but they truly are imaginary “lines!”

Dan June 15, 2015 at 12:43 pm

To put it one more way – we are captivated by these lines/beliefs/stories, and are thus held captive.

Terri Lynn June 15, 2015 at 12:17 pm

I have really noticed this in myself since acquiring my ‘freedom’ from 9 to 5. It is fascinating to see how quickly my time fills up and I still don’t seem to have the time to do what I want to do. Nature abhors a void. It has led me deep deep down a rabbit hole and now I question everything. Not just poor behaviour but every single choice I make. I’ve discovered a person can’t truly make a choice until they realize that they have one to make.

David Cain June 16, 2015 at 9:18 am

I know the feeling. I always thought more time would solve all of my problems, but when I finally made more time, the problems remained. “Not enough time” is a consoling excuse for neglecting important things, and that becomes clear if you ever do leave your job or take a leave of absence with no obligations to fill it. When you no longer have that excuse, you’re confronted with what is a pretty serious moral issue: how should I spent my life?

Andrew Anderson June 15, 2015 at 1:10 pm

Excellent post David. Taking full responsibility for being exactly where we are can be a scary task. But when you do, it is amazing how fast things can change for the better.


David Cain June 16, 2015 at 9:19 am

Thanks Andrew

kate June 15, 2015 at 2:33 pm

I think another way to put this might be……do we choose drama…or not. As with the waitress. Of course we are free to do many things in our lives. Also, as far as not having to get up and go to work…well. yes, that is a choice, but also a commitment. right? It’s being accountable. and doing what we have to do to keep our lives floating. We could choose to go live in the woods, and not have to get up and go to work…so. living in a civilized world there are just things that are right to do. that’s how I see it. We all like to be comfortable, and that comes from having a good balance in our lives.

Ric June 15, 2015 at 2:44 pm

Hi David
I don’t comment here often, but enjoy the read nevertheless.
I thought I’d share that since one angry morning when I dumped my alarm clock into the waste bin about a year ago, it has triggered a change in my life. I began to feel free to get up later, or earlier, to make the most of working from home, and to ignore some of the boundaries in my day to day life that were there before. I’m a better person for it, making more choices without regard for my previously imagined shackles. I suspect this is what your post today is all about. (Of course, it helps to have a FU fund!)

David Cain June 16, 2015 at 9:23 am

I am having little moments like that too, where it suddenly occurs to me that I don’t have to do things the way I always have. Sometimes I still prefer to do it that way, but it’s completely different when it feels like a choice. My work-from-home schedule has become more flexible (and more productive) as I realize I can actually work any time of day, not just at the times I’m used to.

Deb June 15, 2015 at 10:42 pm

So true! Your thoughts make me think of Glasser’s Choice Theory which I studied in Teachers College; he believed we make definite choices in life which relate to survival/belonging/power/freedom/fun. It’s fascinating stuff; thanks for reminding me!

Greg Cruthers June 16, 2015 at 8:13 am

Married for 25 years with 3 children, but separated and living alone for past 6 months. It’s literally the first time in my life I’ve lived alone. It is amazing to slowly realize how many “imaginary lines” I have constructed and the things I now see as “choices.”

David Cain June 16, 2015 at 9:24 am

Changing the day-to-day routine definitely makes a lot of our “lines” visible.

Lori June 16, 2015 at 8:45 am

SO Good. (as is all your writings) totally sharing this one.

Isaac June 17, 2015 at 6:20 am

This is a great peace…We all have freedom of choice. Thanks very much

mike June 17, 2015 at 8:20 am

Great contemplation.
Gurdjieff taught that we need a Third force present with us to give us the unction to follow-thru with implementing a difficult change once we have decided we need one. Gurdjieff called this “The Law of Three” . …interesting stuff.

Ife June 17, 2015 at 9:45 pm

Very insightful piece as usual, David. I’ve caught myself in the middle of exactly this kind of justification/excuse-making many times. I’m getting good at spotting when I do it, but even when I spot it, it’s hard to change my attitude. I can see the path to what I want, but it’s up a steep, rocky hill, and I decide that I don’t want it that badly. Example: I want to make sure I have a healthy, home-made lunch for tomorrow, but tonight I’m too tired/can’t think of anything I’ll find appealing tomorrow/have too much housework to do first. All bad reasons, but sometimes they just feel so… heavy.

I’ve read that self-discipline is like a muscle — it gets tired and doesn’t work as well if we work it too hard. We have so many little choices throughout the day that sap our energy. That was probably the most unexpectedly difficult thing about becoming a step parent: with kids there are hundreds of little choices you have to make throughout the day and you have to weigh them on multiple scales (is it healthy? safe? fair? consistent? how likely is it to cause a fit? what would Spouse think?), and sometimes it gets to a point where I feel like I literally cannot make a decision. Sometimes “Can I have a juice?” feels like a harder question than the problems on my college calculus final. It’s like lifting weights and struggling to finish the last set. Even though I had no problem lifting 15 pounds the first time, or the first 10 times, doing it over and over again makes me tired.

Recognizing when we’re acting in bad faith is only half the battle. The harder part is either doing something about it or owning our choices, as you say.

Tom Southern June 20, 2015 at 9:47 am

Hmm! Life is a performance and everything we do are acts in this performance. You’ve described the scenario brilliantly. It’s all about performing our own narrow stage. Our habits and beliefs govern what we do because we believe we have to stick to the script. Ad libbing seems risky.

There are times when we all have to act a little or a lot. Until we decide not to. I used to bite my tongue and work and act as if I was impartial in all the carry on. Until I couldn’t be impartial any more and started speaking out. I got a lot of stick for it. First I acted like I didn’t care. Until I decided, I actually didn’t care.

I say things and act with friends in different ways to how I act with family, or at work, or with people I’m responsible for. There are boundaries that need to be kept.

Often, I think, people need more imaginary lines because they haven’t understood that there are different roles and stages. They carry on as if everyone and every venue is just an extension of their living room.

John Norris June 20, 2015 at 2:33 pm

One of my favourite phrases from my long-ago evangelical past is “the glorious liberty of the children of god”. Yes, we are free :)

Rene June 21, 2015 at 1:13 am

I think we are always trading off. We are completely free, but we trade our freedom to, let’s say, miss a work deadline, for the perception of security that not missing it entails. I guess we use our freedom as currency. The issue seems to be that many times we trade it for things that aren’t real, no matter how much we want to believe in their reality, or how much society promotes them as facts. This is thorny, because fears, even unfounded fears, are very real, they affect us viscerally. Fear of homelessness, for example. So I guess we should follow the thread of each of our fears and see if they have a plausible root. I think it takes a lot of bravery and guts. The funny thing is how everything seems clearer in the future and not in the present. Ten years from now, we will see there was no reason for doing the things we did as if we had no option. We realize we traded our freedom for ghosts of things that weren’t really there. Or not. Or not. Thanks for this thought-provoking piece.

Edward June 22, 2015 at 11:58 am

I wonder how crazy the world would be if instead of blaming outside interference we had to switch it to an honest internal choice. Every single time you’d like to invent a cause or come up with an excuse you had to replace the sentence with “I prefer to __” or “I preferred not to ___”. e.g., “I didn’t get the job because I preferred not to make a phone call.” “I put on weight this winter because I preferred to eat cake and spaghetti when it was cold outside.” “My marriage ended because I preferred a blonde woman at work to my wife”. I’m sure hilarity and anarchy would ensue.

Gabrielle June 24, 2015 at 10:24 am

For me, this is definitely related to a revelation I had a couple of months back on the subconscious stories we adopt about ourselves and live by.

I’d just started at a new job, and had changed into gym gear at the end of the day. My new manager asked me what I was off to do – I explained and he replied “I could tell you were a really sporty person”.

His comment took me completely by surprise, as up until that point, I had considered myself to be the complete antithesis of ‘sporty’. Throughout my childhood, my mother hammered it into me and my siblings that sports just weren’t for us – her best friend (and my adopted aunt) were all into golf and worked in the industry and she would go on about how sporty they were all the time, and how we were laughably not in comparison.

We just accepted that story, and I used to joke about how lazy and crap at sports I was – despite the fact that since starting primary school, I have without fail been engaged in some sports or other. And actually been good at it! I would come home everyday after school and go on hour long bike rides with my brother. My sisters both won medals in national gymnastics competitions. I coxed my college first VIII men’s boat at Oxford University. Throughout my life, I have done gymnastics, trampolining, horse riding, athletics (competitively), mountain biking, skiing, yoga, hiking and rowing (competitively). But all the time, we still joked about how hopeless we were at sports. Just because my mum said so. Sometimes you just don’t question things, or look at them in the right way because you’re so damned sure that that’s the way things are.

I am still as active as ever (indoor rowing, running, weight training, yoga, walking, skiing), but I now tell people I am a sporty person. It’s made me feel completely different about me as a person, even though nothing in my behaviour has changed. Just my story. It’s probably made me more active than ever, because ‘that’s the sort of person I am now’.

Incidentally, my mother found her real family on the internet (she’s adopted) and we met up with them. My grandfather and step uncles are all ex-rugby players and one of them is a semi-professional tennis player. She said she couldn’t believe it, because we all turned out to be completely different…

Minikins June 28, 2015 at 9:59 am

It’s the old adage of “what you think, so you become”
What others think or say to you also has an effect. If you are called stupid enough times it can make you think you are stupid. If you think it you will be it or act it. You have a choice, most definitely, but it does involve resistance to some commonly mis held beliefs of yourself and others.

Chris June 30, 2015 at 11:17 am

Stop holding me accountable! I want to be able to blame my wife for my poor eating habits damnit!

elise July 1, 2015 at 10:49 am

loved this piece too and so glad I discovered your blog. I read this thinking of all the moms—myself included—who have uttered the phrase, “What choice do I have?” Or, “It’s not like I have a choice,” regarding feeling victimized by our kids for keeping us up at night, “needing” to go to ballet, karate, soccer; schlepping to family functions, doling out punishments, making them cry it out at night and dozens of other scenarios. As a kid I felt victimized by my parents and as an adult it’s my kids who are to blame. But the truth is, I don’t have to do any of those things. We could just stay up all night, skip ballet or drive them into the river. There are choices and only when we realize this do the shackles loosen. We choose parenting every time we make a so-called sacrifice for our kids. It could be a really empowering feeling if we just saw the field instead of the corridor. Thanks for posting!

Jason Townsend July 1, 2015 at 5:20 pm

Hi David,

This concept of ‘bad faith’ is new to me. Although the essence behind it is something I am all too familiar with, I have never had it described in this way.

I believe, as I feel you do too, that (almost) everything in life is a choice. Our greatest influence over our destiny is our ability to make a decision (educated is better) then act upon it swiftly, with conviction and faith in our ability to succeed. For the most part, we have the ability to shape our world, our response, and our lives, based on key decisions that we make in any given moment.

Sure, there are some biological factors that influence our ability to act upon our decisions (such as your inability to write past 5pm for example), which will vary from person to person and may well be harder to control (sleep, brain activity in the mornings etc.). That aside, there are so many other responses to variables in our lives which we could, if we chose to, address, modify, or remove should we decide it’s in our best interest – aligning with our dreams, goals, and desires.

I see many people (and yes, I too was one of them during a past period of my life) that settle for mediocre because they choose not to see the abundance of options that could be had in the moment. I get it, I felt tied to my 9-5 corporate job because of my financial debts and an ‘obligation’ to do my university studies justice and pursue a career. What I see in hindsight is that I made the decision (albeit not the best one) to buy property, to invest my money in short-sighted schemes, and to stomach an unbearable sentence chained to my desk. Yes, for a long time I felt helpless and blamed others for my misfortune,which only made me avoid the truth. I made a decision to be where I was, and it was those decisions that had led me to that point in time. What was really the problem, is that I hadn’t gone and created new decisions, and thus redirected the course of my life.

Soon after, I realised this and did in fact make change. So prevalent was my realisation that I now stand by the motto “never regret anything in life, for at one time it was exactly what you wanted”. I feel this encompasses anybody’s life at this moment in time. Any outcome, good or bad, is the result of a decision you had a hand in making (or accepting).

Life is full of choices, and it’s up to each of us to decide and take action. Only then can we fully realise freedom in it’s purest, most liberating form.

Thanks for your thoughts. I hope I’ve not overstepped the mark with my rendition.


Jason Townsend – http://www.kickstartacause.com

Toppytimer July 6, 2015 at 3:37 pm

We are not completely free in any sense. We are animals. Sartre failed to incorporate the biological realities of human existence into his philosophy. Particularly unforgivable given Frederich and Charles’ work had been around for decades.

David Cain July 18, 2015 at 1:30 pm

Actual free will is not necessary to make use of the concept of bad faith, even though Sartre seemed to believe we did have free will. Whether our choices are deterministic results or have no prior causes, bad faith is a way of examining whether we are acting on known truths or from a motive we are hiding from ourselves. Here is my comment from a similar question being asked on the Facebook page:

There is room for a bigger discussion here, Sarah, definitely. You could argue that you aren’t free to do something for which an impulse never arises. You can even argue that we don’t have free will at all — that all of our thoughts and actions are preceded by neurological events we can’t choose. I actually suspect that is true. Sartre’s point remains useful, though, because once we begin to reflect on our actual freedom as opposed to our normally-presumed level of freedom, we see more options, and have more actionable impulses, or at least a *better* actionable impulse. Whether this is all happening in a context of true free will, or a deterministic experience, the result is an individual taking better actions. At the very least it’s a useful kind of lateral thinking — “if I didn’t do what I keep saying I MUST do, what could I do?”

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