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Training the Autopilot

How much control do we have over the course of our lives? Is there free will or not?

Sorry, I won’t be answering these profound and ancient questions in this short essay. I won’t even be scratching the surface of the debate. But my sister died recently, which forces me to look back at past actions. Sadly, it’s a discouraging vista: repeated carelessness toward others, frequent outbursts of anger, and chronic negativity. There is no doubt that I should have behaved better, but the question is: did I have any choice in how I acted?

In a moment we’ll discuss how corrosive actions often lie beyond our conscious control. First, however, let’s notice that even good behavior may not feel chosen.

For instance, I’ve been a faithful husband. My wife and I have been together twenty years, and I’ve never cheated. Yes, I admit to occasional temptations, but I’ve not gone beyond the flirtation and fantasy stage. This isn’t exactly admirable, but it’s not despicable either. There were a couple of times I briefly considered stepping over the line, but my ethical standards stopped me. Before you think I’m touting my own rectitude, consider that my hesitance sprang from a deep revulsion that nearly crippled me. Countering the thrill of sexual excitement was a nauseating anxiety caused by the possibility of ruining my marriage. I didn’t exercise my principles; they exercised me.

How many of us need to hold back from killing the people who anger us? How often do we ponder whether to murder or not? For most of us, causing another’s death is nearly unthinkable, which explains why the vast majority of killings are crimes of passion. They are emotional outbursts and not rational decisions. The assassin who carefully plans his crime is recognized as sociopathic and morally deformed. Most of us avoid murder not because it’s wrong, but because it’s unimaginable.

Glaring sins like adultery and murder are usually not choices at all, but impulses. I imagine that most consummated affairs start out as edgy flirtations but end up as infatuations that feel irresistible. The rational decision-making mechanism gets overridden by emotional and sexual arousal. So where is the free will? We’ll come back to this question soon.

But first, let’s consider what arguably matters as much in life as staying away from the big transgressions. Again taking my marriage as an example, consider that although by the crude standard of sexual monogamy I’ve been a good husband, by more subtle measures I have not. Reader’s of my more personal blog know that my sister had many problems and suffered from alcoholism, and that after her death I felt great remorse about so often taking her to task and criticizing her behavior. My judgmental stance toward her was just one example of a more pervasive trend of easy frustration and ready critique. My sister only had to bear my irritability occasionally, but my wife has endured a steady diet of it. And aren’t a multitude of small hurts as bad as a single large one?

I might not publicly admit to such glaring character failings but for two facts:

    1. No matter how sincerely I resolved to do better, for years it seemed nearly impossible to hold my tongue. I felt compelled, over and over, to voice my frustration. There seemed to be little choice in my behavior, and I never felt right about my critical comments. Sometimes, they didn’t even seem like my own doing, since they so undermined my desire to be a good person.

Yes & No. Conditioning determines choices, and so limits our ability to choose our actions. On the other hand, our behavior creates our conditioning, so with proper practice we can grow into people who make healthy choices automatically.

I warned you this essay wouldn’t actually answer the questions it posed.

Training the Autopilot

Will Meecham, MD, MA

In late 2014, Will Meecham, MD, MA, launched to combine clear explanations of biology with meditations on Life.

Before he felt ready to start, Will needed to overcome a highly traumatic upbringing. In young adulthood he coped with his past by over-achieving, completing years of higher education in ecology, biophysics, neuroscience, and medicine. But in mid-life, when neck disease ended his career as an oculoplastic surgeon, he was forced to confront vulnerabilities such as low self-esteem, high reactivity, interpersonal conflict, dissociation, and an unstable sense of identity, all of which are common problems for those who suffered hardship early in life.

After years of inner work, he grew more stable, grounded, and secure. Along the way, he discovered that his lifelong love of biology helped him find meaning and purpose in Life. He now works to encourage greater appreciation, gratitude, and compassion for the human body.

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APA Reference
Meecham, W. (2011). Training the Autopilot. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 28, 2020, from


Last updated: 9 Oct 2011
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