Is Life What You Make of It?

Do you feel like you are deciding your own fate? Do you think the person sleeping on the street has decided theirs? How much do you factor in luck when considering your successes or failures? And what about when you think of the successes or failures of others?

As we grow up, we learn what to care about and what not to, and who to care about and who not to. We derive constant information and cues from the social circles in which we move, and wider cultural norms. These, in turn, drive our sense of what we want out of life: in terms of material and consumable goods, in terms of our jobs and careers, and also what we expect in our relationships.

The more opportunities and privilege you get growing up, the greater array of life choices you’ll probably have available to you. And the more likely you are to feel that these are your choices, which extend to what and who you care about.

Luck vs good management

This feeling of having control over one’s own fate is sometimes called ‘agency’. If you don’t believe in luck, but rather only believe in ‘good life management’, as the saying goes, then you obviously feel a strong sense of individual agency. But the problem with this can be is that some people then start to question why, when they’ve worked so hard to create the destiny they wanted for themselves, should they bother to help anyone else.

There’s a flaw in that thinking, however. Outcomes in life are often not accurate reflections of the paths that people took to attain them. If you started a race from a better position than that guy back there, would it really be surprising that you reached the finishing line first?

Caring about differences in opportunity between people is about attending to social inequities, not just inequalities. Inequities concern the unfair starting points1


Hard work doesn’t count for that much (sorry)

Essentially, if you are someone who has worked hard to get where you are, you probably also need to acknowledge that your successes are in large part due to the lucky opportunities you have had in life. Your place of birth, skin colour, physical able-ness, family origins and support network all weigh in heavily.

But in Western societies, the remaining ‘individual’ part of you pursuing those lucky opportunities still draws on your sense of free will, your feeling that you are the master of your own fate. This is where phenomenology comes in.

Free Will

In anthropology, the tensions between social ‘structure’ and personal ‘agency’ seesaw. If you are a determinist, the seesaw will likely fall comfortably on the side of cultural-neurological fates (i.e., “I was born this way, nothing I can do about it”, or “that’s just the way it is in my culture”, or “my brain has my next move already mapped out ahead of my consciousness anyway”), and structuralist explanations (“societal forces are the reason that everything is the way it is”). With structural explanations also come the potential to shift structures.

But then there are some of us who contemplate the powers that come with feeling free will. I am intrigued by the extent to which feeling a greater sense of control over one’s own fate may cloud one’s sense of care for social inequities and divides. In the society around me, I often notice how the self-bias of neoliberal (‘free will’) attitudes can spur a lack of care about the ‘luck’ factor in life.

And thinking phenomenologically and appreciating the arguments for human agency, instead – as I myself still do – isn’t actually incompatible with caring about social equity measures. Quite the opposite. A homeless person might have minimal control over their situation, but it doesn’t have to define who they are, or define their lived experience of homelessness.

As philosopher Sarah Bakewell assured me while I was thinking through this conundrum during my fieldwork, arguments for indeterminism (associated with free will) found in phenomenology do not merely reject determinism:

We often mistake the very things that enable us to be free – context, meaning, facticity, situation, a general direction in our lives – for things that define us and take away our freedom. It is only with all these can we can be free in a real sense … I may not choose what happens to me, but I can choose what to make of it. (Bakewell 2016: 157 my emphasis).

Phenomenology emphasises the experiential human capacity to decide for oneself ‘what to make’ of our otherwise determined circumstances. What we are conscious of matters more to us than the preconscious building blocks of that experience.

‘Bad Faith’ and ‘Good Faith’

Confusingly, religious believers, atheists, and phenomenologists all throw about the notion of ‘bad faith’ when people aren’t being ‘true’ to individual potentials. A show of bad faith can be used to describe the lack of openness to counter-arguments when debating a viewpoint (such as whether free will exists). For phenomenologist Jean-Paul Sartre, ‘bad faith’ is what it means to be fatalistic or to not live in enthusiastic and ‘authentic’ pursuit of the not-yet-experienced.

Of course, both beliefs in lived feelings of free will (Sartre’s ‘good faith’) or lack of free will (Sartre’s ‘bad faith’) are self-protective mechanisms. Yet, despite the contradictions in phenomenology (that we cannot actually capture lived experiences that are over before consciousness of them began), the conscious feeling pertaining to ‘good faith’ can keep us moving through our lives without absolute certainty for how things are going to turn out. This gives us scope to imagine change, and to care about making things better in the world.

Being the Social Change

To ‘be the change’ we believe in, as both Obama and Gandhi put it, first requires us to believe in something different from, or ‘more than’, what currently is. This means deciphering what does not sit right in the lives we are already so immersed in. This means having the time and energy to consider our own position relative to others’ positions.


Some previous life experiences, along with my fieldwork with people who are socially disadvantaged, has made me more sensitive to the role of ‘luck’ in life. Thus paying attention to social differences and disparities has become part of my own means of self-care. I guess I live in ‘good faith’ that social change is possible via wider social care.

But what people make of their own and others’ circumstances does not easily come with an appetite for change. Feeling comfortable feels good; to be familiar with circumstances and ideas maximises our feelings of certainty about ourselves, about what we know, about what matters, and about who or what to thank or blame for undesired outcomes.

In regard to how much pre-determined ‘luck’ compares to perceptions of social mobility, it is useful to remember that both luck and feelings of free-will play into social inequities. Social security measures that aim “to help people help themselves” could better acknowledge whether people really feel like they have a choice to contribute to their own and others’ circumstances, and then care for ‘being’ part of that change.

Choosing to care

Given a chance to consider what it means to feel some level of security and mobility, you might better recognise that the feeling of control in choosing either more of the same thing or something different could come with greater opportunities for caring for others less fortunate than you.

The apple doesn’t fall that far from the tree without rolling at least a little inwards, but the structural faiths given to us by our support systems – including family, friends, government social securities and societal attitudes – opens up different paths of possibility. The more choice we feel we have does not need to mean we feel less sympathy for others; rather, it can give us more capacity for investing in greater social equity.

[Blog image by Julia Brown; Social equity/equality graphic sourced from:; Obama poster sourced from]

  1. 2020 update: this picture should really show a sloped ground with people of equal size: []

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