In our reflections so far, we have been considering the will as a faculty of the soul, which, when guided by our reason, moves us in making choices that align with what is truly good, with what is directed to God and to others in charity. In this sense, the will itself is something good, something vital for the functioning of our spiritual life. It is the locus of the true self. By its work, our emotions become integrated and our decisions and actions gradually align with what is good and true. We need to know that our will is there – and appreciate it.
But, on the other hand, the will has also received some rather bad press. ‘Oh, my little Jimmy is so wilful,’ an exhausted mother of a two-year-old might say. Used in this way, the notion of the will can seem to be something problematic, stubbornly chained to the disordered cravings of our emotions and allied to our selfishness. Is our will something good or something bad, then?
In a superb book, Will and Spirit, written in 1982 by the psychologist Gerald May, an important distinction is made between being wilful and willing. This distinction focuses on the will not only as a faculty of the soul, but as an operation. According to May,
Willingness implies a surrendering of one’s self-separateness, an entering into, an immersion in the deepest processes of life itself. In contrast, wilfulness is the setting of oneself apart from the fundamental essence of life in an attempt to master, direct, control, or otherwise manipulate existence. More simply, willingness is saying yes to the mystery of being alive in each moment. Wilfulness is saying no….
Willingness and wilfulness…reflect the underlying attitude one has toward the wonder of life itself. Willingness notices this wonder and bows in some kind of reverence to it. Wilfulness forgets it, ignores it or at its worst, actively tries to destroy it [Will and Spirit, Harper Collins, 1982, Ch. 1].
Perhaps, simply put, when we are talking about the will in terms of wilfulness, then, we are speaking of an aspect of our interior life that is self-involved, determined on its own agenda, closed to God. When we are speaking of the will as a faculty of the soul, then we are usually speaking of it in terms of willingness, as Gerald May describes. And more, we mean the will as an ally of our reason, giving us an ability to make wise decisions and choices, as well as motivating us to carry them out.