Witchful Thinking: Free Will, Bending Will, and the Harm in The “How”

How do you get what you want?

Some people never make it to this question. They get stymied on the issue of deciding what they want. They have too many choices, or they don’t like their choices. They don’t trust the Universe. They don’t trust themselves. Deciding what you want carries with it its own set of issues one must work though. But we’re going to presume you’ve mastered that.

Once you know what it is you want, how do you go about getting it?

“An it harm none, do what you will.” The phrase has prompted nearly every thought leader in the pagan community to offer up opinions on the issue of whether it’s necessary or advisable to offer up the “harm none” portion of this admonition. After all, if you’re coming at your magic from a more Hermetic angle, the thinking is actually almost diametrically opposed, with some thinking that it’s quite appropriate to harm someone who is trying to “thwart” your will.

In pagan circles we talk a lot about living in accord with our own free will. A big mistake that many who are just starting on the path make is confusing the concept of what one wills with what one wants. They are not coextensive. It’s very easy to want things. I want ice cream. I want a million dollars. I want a lover. But merely articulating a want does absolutely nothing to bring such a thing closer to you. Like my mother in law used to say, “it’s good to want…..it builds character.”

But for something to be your will, that requires more. I can want a bowl of chocolate ice cream all day long. But it is not until I shift into a stance where I am prepared to expend whatever energy or resources it takes to get that bowl of ice cream has it become my will. And at that point, I have become determined to find a way. I will drive through traffic to the grocery store, walk the frozen dessert aisle until I find the chocolate ice cream I want, and pay the price on the container, even if it’s a premium brand not on sale. Now, I have willed chocolate ice cream into my hands. This, by the way, is the difference between magical thinking, and actual magic.

And given how important the ability to exercise our own will is, it’s only right that we ought to be reluctant to deprive others of theirs. That’s very easy to say, but there are 7.6 billion people on planet earth. And they are all in possession of their own free will. About 2.6 billion according to one advocacy group, live in nations that are repressive, corrupt, or otherwise not free. Between 20 and 40 million people are exploited via human trafficking, effectively enslaved. In the United States, about 1.8 million are incarcerated. We don’t often in a spiritual context think about free will and its relationship to human rights, but it’s not outrageous to suggest that we who walk a path that is all about harnessing the power of one’s own will should feel it keenly when another’s will is forcibly and significantly limited.

But what happens when your will doesn’t match with someone else’s? Or you need someone’s help to get your will? What happens when someone else stands between you and what you want?

Let me be clear — this question is guaranteed to arise no matter what your will is. There are very few things of any import in the world that can be achieved without the cooperation of others. We live in a country that loves to sell the trope of the “self-made” man (and yes, it is usually a man) — a mythical creature who has “pulled himself up by his bootstraps” and created a life of wealth and achievement all on his own, without anyone else’s help, even though he started with very little in the way of resources. The trouble is, the trope is bullshit. It’s ironic that the phrase itself, “pulling themself up by their bootstraps,” actually originated in the 19th Century as a sarcastic retort denoting an impossible task.

The idea that we can achieve all our dreams without any assistance from anyone else is equally impossible. Every “self-made” man in the world has had a mentor, a partner, a benefactor, or some other helper who has assisted him to get to his lofty perch. Usually there are several people. Elon Musk, for instance, did not invent the battery that powers the Tesla empire. Martin Eberhard did. Jay-Z partnered with the legendary Damon Dash to come up in the rap game. Steve Jobs might never have been able to start the juggernaut that is Apple without Steve Wozniak. Scratch the surface of any rags to riches story and you’ll find that the plucky hero of that story had help, often an entire community of people who got them to where they are. And even at the top of their game, they have an army of assistants and others who keep their empire running.

No one is completely “self-made” and no one does it alone. You need collaborators, allies, co-conspirators. You will, sooner or later, need to bend others to your will.

How you choose to do that matters deeply.

There are those who will tell you that all relationships are transactional, that bending others to your will is merely a matter of striking the right deal. That’s not entirely false, but it’s not entirely true either. In the healthiest relationships with high trust and deep love, the participants do not keep careful score over who is giving, who is getting, and what exactly has changed hands between the parties. There is the mutual understanding that these things even out over time, and that even though you might be doing a lot of giving at one moment, in another you will receive. The awareness of the “ledger” of the relationship is low.

Sometimes the transaction resembles extortion: “If you don’t do this for me, I will do this to you.” Make no mistake that in EVERY instance where this dynamic is occurring, this is an exercise of force. It denotes a power imbalance between the parties to the transaction, and there is a huge potential for abuse.

And sometimes we find ourselves in a situation with a person where we haven’t been paying close attention to the relationship “ledger,” and suddenly we find that the balances are very unbalanced. One person has been getting all the benefits while the other person is providing all the labor. Often, there’s not just a disparity in the actual ledger, but there is often a difference of perception of the ledger itself. One person may be thinking they are giving more than the other person acknowledges. One person may have become complacent, and is taking the contributions of the other person for granted, as no more than their due.

This usually means that the relationship’s parameters need to be renegotiated, or the relationship needs to end. It can all be pretty straightforward if you let it be — mutual respect and honest dealing between the parties will ultimately produce a result that may not be ideal for everyone, but honors the free will of the people involved. In an open and honest negotiation, people choose freely what they are willing to give, and what they are willing to get, with full awareness of what’s at stake.

But there are some folks who do not want to negotiate their relationships unless they can be sure they will come out on top. They want to have their way without having to give anything up to get it. So they try to stack the deck. There are a lot of tactics that people use to engineer their relationships so that they can get what they want without having to give much in return. The biggest one is to control information. Lying is the most transgressive form of this, of course, actually MIS-informing someone. We all know that’s bad.

But more often than actual lying, folks will turn to selective informing. They get what they want from their fellows by extracting agreements based not on false information, but the presentation of a factual, but incomplete picture. They tell one person X, another person Y, and maybe third person X and Y but not Z. Each disclosure is specific, so they can elicit the response they want from the person they are engaging with. They realize that if they were to give anyone the full picture — X, Y and Z — that perhaps they would not be able to get what they want so easily. Selective information is a calculated attempt to limit what a person chooses by presenting them with a controlled environment in which to exercise their choices. By controlling the information they use to make their choices, the thinking goes, you can ensure they make the choice you want. On the surface it seems attractive as a tactic. But make no mistake, engineering other people’s choices in this way is not benign. A person who is making choices in an engineered environment is not exercising their will in full. They are being manipulated.

The problem with selective informing is that it only works if the people who are being manipulated in this way never speak to anyone else. Frequently someone who relies on selective informing to get their way will use other shady tactics to make sure that the people they are manipulating, their targets, stay isolated. They try to shame their target, implying that the target would be betraying them if they speak to anyone else. Sometimes they try to stroke an ego, making the target feel special that they have information that others don’t. Sometimes they will even try to pit different targets against each other. If a target is proving highly resistant, they might try to trash talk them to everyone else, so that if they do speak out, they will be disbelieved or discounted. Whatever tactic is used, the objective is the same — keep all the targets separated and silent.

There are a few problems with selective informing as a means of getting what you want. The first is that it’s not reliably effective. For it to actually work, the target must stay isolated from others who can give them better information. But that’s hard to guarantee. We frequently do not know who a person knows or how well they know them. And to quote a friend of mine — The world is like a toddler. It is small and touches itself inappropriately. Most people have larger and more dynamic personal networks than we give them credit for. You may think you have successfully triangulated your target and have them exactly where you want them. But your target is often more connected than you know, and knows more than you’ve told them. And when they figure out they are being manipulated, they are not happy.

It’s also inefficient. One of the reasons why professional liars (spies, undercover cops, etc.) say you should make any lies you have to tell as close as possible to the truth, is because they are easier to maintain. The amount of effort required to keep straight what you’ve said to whom is exhausting. And the fact is, the direct, honest way will usually get you there faster and with more goodwill. Because the ultimate reason why selective informing should be avoided is that it’s patronizing, manipulating, and indicates a belief that people are objects to be played on a chessboard or obstacles to be overcome. When you use selective informing as a way to ensure you get what you want, you are ultimately placing attaining your own desires above treating people with respect.

There are some who will say, “And what of it? Aren’t I entitled to seek my will? Who is getting hurt here?” Most people who engage in selective informing view it as an expediency. Why risk a direct discussion where you might have to argue or stir up hard feelings, when you can just manipulate the situation and get what you want without any confrontation? Isn’t that avoiding harm? After all, what they don’t know can’t hurt them, right?

And while it’s true that yes, you are fully entitled to seek your will, you are not entitled to avoid the consequences of the choices you make in how you do so. Put simply, you may do anything you like, so long as you are willing to pay the price for it. In relying on manipulation to get what you want, you are not treating others as full, equal partners in your relationships. You are intentionally limiting their exercise of free will in order to obtain your own will. That is in fact, harming them. You shouldn’t be surprised when the people that you’ve been manipulating do not thank you for it. No one likes being treated like a game piece.

None of this is to say that you have to tell everyone everything all the time. As I have said before, you are a witch, not a reality TV star. The point here is that how you choose to get what you will in the world does matter. The idea of doing whatever it takes to get what you want sounds really badass in theory. But in practice, it means running roughshod over people. The beauty of paganism is that we don’t have to be good or nice because if we don’t some Sky Daddy is going to punish us. But the mechanics of the Universe are pretty clear — you will own the natural consequences of your actions sooner or later. If you disrespect people, and treat them like objects to be manipulated or obstacles to be overcome, those people will be angry at you. Your ability to turn to those people for love and comfort will become limited. You might get what you thought you wanted, but find that you have paid too dearly to get it.

The problem with “do what you will” and the question of harm is not whether the Universe has a right to expect harmlessness from us. The problem is that what we do in pursuit of our will is not the whole of the matter. How we do what we do, whether we are fully willing to own the aftermath and impact of what we do, is critical to the equation. Deciding what it is you will is an important first step, but it is not the end of the inquiry. How you are going to get it, what you are willing to do to others, and whether you’re prepared to live with the consequences of that, are far more important.

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