Recommendations from this article: Ship of Ghosts (Amazon), Free Will (Article on Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy), The Obstacle is the Way (Amazon)

Time To Read: 5 – 7 minutes

Highlights and Quotations: 1 – 2 minutes

Free will is often described simply as the power to act. Its counterpart is fate. Where fate is an action that is destined to happen. These opposing ideas are often at the center of highly debated topics. Often times religion proposes to release to the divinity and its path for you. Or philosophers state supposed uncontested truths about the metaphysics of free will. Whatever the perspective there is much contention over the existence of free will. With staunch advocacy for and against its existence. What is not often delved into is the middle ground. Can fate and free will exist together simultaneously?

Arguments for either side take many names. Whether its causal determinism, compatibilism, or theological determinism they often find a mixture of placement between past, future and the law of nature. But one must look at the immediacy of the current instance you are in now to truly understand the existence of choice. Pain and suffering are two instances where whether the agent themselves or the power that controls the agent are choosing, will drastically affect its acceptance.

Ray Parkins an American POW held captive for several years by the Imperial Japanese army has a powerful perspective on pain. “Part of the reason [survival] lies in the way they formed the experience. Those who used language carefully distinguished between suffering and enduring. ‘Suffer is a dangerous word here just now – it can induce self-pity’, said Parkins. Endure is a better word, it is not ‘negative’. I have seen so much self-conscious suffering and men dying from self-pity.”

The exchange of a single word that leads to a singular thought could be the line between life and death. To suffer implies so much more than the current pain being felt. It attributes to an active thought of deserving what you receive. It removes itself from the constraints of time. But endurance leads itself to a tangible end. It provokes an improvement in self once completed. Previous choices could be attributed to future problems. But immediate choice is definitively attributed to your current state. “Focus on what can be controlled”, says Holiday in The Obstacle is the Way. He further expands quoting Marcus Aurelius, maybe the most iconic military leader and philosopher, “Choose not to be harmed – and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed – and you haven’t been.” That may sound extremely elementary but those soldiers that suffered did so not with the intention they put forth.

Hornfischer writes in Ship of Ghosts, “Senior officers, who usually had the best access to information and were well suited to evaluate it, would be the most despondent prisoners in camp. Commander Epstein succumbed to the despair that education and knowledge sometimes brought….where more hopeful outlooks managed to work their way through the most difficult days on naive faith.”

We can not truly be empathetic to the state of mind thrust onto Commander Epstein. But we can view the interaction of free will, or choice(s), he made. His intention was to survive, but in taking the burden of knowledge, be it true or false, the grim prospects that he received directly affected his outlook towards the future. Eventually leading to his death. Where if he was able to remove that information from his path and focus on the current state of survival his future may have been different. Choice, whether perceived as good or bad, can be lead is any direction with intent.

According to Marvin Robinson, Hill, ‘willed himself to die’ by repeating these words as his dysentery drained him: ‘This is not the way my mother made bread….’

It can certainly be argued that Hill did not choose to attract dysentery and that that killed him. But he clearly stated and put forth an intention to release himself from his worldly body under his own volition. He would not let the choices of his past dictate the time of his death. Where Hill faced the insurmountable odds of death and choose to decide when it was time for himself. Another POW faced the idea of capture with a firm grasp on its path for him but choose it to be only a step along the way of his life.

The collective ordeal propelled them into a deeper alliance…the trait the Americans have in common with the Australians was a boundless sea of possible (learn more about the idea of possibility)…he would remind himself on the difficult journey ahead: ‘There’s a plan for everyman, and when that plan is completed that is the end. This is not my time. My death is not determined yet. I will get home.’

This could not exemplify the marriage of free will and fate any further. There is an obvious path carved out for everyone  (life then death) but you are able to choose the path along the way. Before even stepping foot onto land as a prisoner of war he choose to endure and not to suffer. In The Obstacle is the Way, Holiday writes about pre-mortem, a term of preparation. Where he proposes envisioning the worst case scenario prior to start. This POW saw death, came to terms with it, and determined it to be further down the road for him. Everything that came before it he was already prepared for.

During their captivity POW’s were being subjected to inhumane levels of treatment. Treatment that caused high ranking Imperial officers to be sentenced to death by an International Court. During these times though there were still moments of ingenuity and perseverance. The lighter side of punishment received was a pittance sized ration of food. Often times rice, infested or rotted, would be given only to those able to work, at a size barely enough to fill a ladle. As Lanson Harris recalls:

We’d take bits of tobacco and make rice balls. Throw the balls into the river where the fish would eat them, get sick, and fill up with air. They would float to the surface and we would club them and toss them onto the beach. You’d do anything to eat.

These prisoners of war were all subjected to a similar ‘fate’ but many has drastically different outcomes. The constraints of their ‘free will’ may have tightened but there was always room for an internal choice on how to experience what they were put through. Holiday goes on to write, “We don’t get to choose what happens to us, but we can always choose how we feel about it….if the event must occur, Amor Fati (a love of fate) is the response.” We all have factors outside our control but how we react to them internally is always a choice made.