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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss


When we look for words to describe that force within human beings that enables them to prevail in spite of daunting challenges the word will power or force of will often come to mind. But it is hard to get our hands around what exactly that force is or from where it comes. Listening to people who have overcome difficult, even horrific adversity there is a modesty about them, a humbled quietude suggesting that they do not credit themselves for their persistence or survival. It is as if this will force is given, not innate, but there is another, darker form that it can take—willfulness.

We should applaud those who are comfortable in their own identity and can draw on inner reserves when they need to rise to an occasion. In the extreme, however, what is a positive energy can be become numb to the signals that tell a wiser individual when to resist and when to seek an alternative approach. Willfulness goes beyond constructive expression of the self, venturing into a place where counsel is unheeded and outcome frequently takes the form of a hard lesson. Many presume such willfulness is a hallmark of youth and inexperience but I have found it as prevalent among those who anoint themselves as arbiters of morality or politically correct behavior. When will force becomes arrogant it is no longer a foundational energy of the self but a repressive form of a parental super-ego.

There are some tells that make it possible to identify those around us who have moved past force of will to willfulness. One is absolute moral certainty. Don’t be confused by this assertion, it is not a sign of Godliness or moral perfection; quite the contrary. Often those who represent moral certainty are morally corrupt. They arrive at their position out of a perverse sense of righteousness. They have not wrestled with any quandry—but rather have convinced themselves that they are uniquely endowed with the insight to see the truth—a truth denied all others. Placing themselves above pedestrian views of human right and wrong such individuals trade in false moral equivalencies and when pressed, on arcane interpretation of scripture. They are indeed false prophets.

There is another kind of willfulness that arises in the presence of such people, the willful belief of the sycophant. They are the unruly mob who find their identity in their patronage of the false prophet. They lack will power of their own—but borrow their sense of self from their participation in a movement, a self-reinforcing group of acolytes. On those occasions when a would-be prophet is unmasked, shown to be corrupt, weak, self-interested, the followers will first express their shock, than offer excuses and finally distance themselves from their former leader but never question the views they adopted at his or her direction. The moral compass they lacked continues to leave them adrift without a cause. Not to trivialize but it reminds me of a joke by a comedienne who described the behavior of her cats. She observed that they would eat rubber bands and spit them up which, she assumed, was out of the belief that they had just eaten a bad batch.

Sycophants are much the same—they do not see that a moral stance delivered by a morally corrupt leader is inherently corrupt itself. They will seek a replacement—someone standing in the wings ready to take up the same corruption, repeating the cycle. It is not surprising that politics and religion are frequent bedfellows. Both trade in absolutism.

Perhaps I sound mistrustful of both. I will acknowledge that I am slow to give my trust to priests and pols. I have met many who are admirable, authentic and wise. For every one that meets that description, I have known a dozen that I would not follow around the corner. What will force I possess has been hard won and I do not surrender it lightly.

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