We’re all aware of the dangers of a lack of spontaneity. Someone who is not spontaneous is likely to be stiff, mannered, formal, rigid or over-controlling. We think of people who are unable or unwilling to experience emotion, to be in the moment, to act without much planning. If you tried to remedy this by cultivating an attitude of letting go of excessive control, you would soon encounter the paradox of “trying to be more spontaneous”. Easier said than done.
And while spontaneity is undoubtedly a positive quality, it’s also easy to glorify it in an uncritical, Sixties kind of way: we should go with the flow, follow our feelings, not be too much in our heads.
But doing whatever we feel like whenever we feel like it is not the path to wisdom. Spontaneity can easily morph into impulsivity, which is the source of many an unwise course of action – not to mention addictive behaviours.
There are relevant differences between spontaneity and impulsivity: the former may be unplanned but, far from being unthinking, is based on a quick assessment that the intended course of action is in accordance with one’s values and beliefs. Impulsive action, on the other hand, tends to be at odds with these.
So it is that an impromptu trip to the seaside is deemed spontaneous, while visiting the pub if you are on the wagon may be judged impulsive. But there is an annoying grey area between the two. Are you spontaneous or impulsive if you buy a gorgeous pair of shoes you don’t really need? Or if you telephone an ex with whom things are not wholly resolved?
It’s not always clear at the time whether a prospective action is spontaneous or impulsive. And since the power of self-deception is great, it’s easy to convince ourselves that an impulsive action is merely spontaneous. The amount of agonising required is partly related to the potential seriousness of the consequences. The difficult balance is that we should be on our guard – but not too much.
Spontaneity is celebrated as a kind of freedom. Liberated from the tyranny of plans and schedules, we do what we feel like doing, just because we can.
In some ways, however, spontaneity makes for an odd exemplar of free will. Over the centuries many philosophers and theologians have insisted that a person who simply does what she wants is not truly free but blindly in thrall to her impulses. To act on a whim without thinking is to be a kind of slave to our desires.
What’s more, when philosophers talk of free will, they almost always talk about decisions where we use our reason to weigh up alternative options. To be free is to do one thing rather than another – but unless our choice is the product of some kind of deliberation, it’s more like a random toss of a coin.
It is as though we have two different models of human freedom here which don’t fit neatly together. There is the spontaneous free spirit, flying where she feels like, and the composed free intellect, choosing what she decides is right.
True freedom needs to combine elements of both. We need both reason and passion, since while desire without reflection is blind, reflection without desire is indifferent. While we ought to think about whether we really want what we think we want, logic alone won’t give us any wants at all.
The role of intellect, however, need not always be that of the conscious controller, guiding our decisions at every juncture. We often feel most free when we are just doing, in the flow of activity without thinking too much about it. Such spontaneity, if it is not to be pure caprice, needs to be in accordance with the goals and values we endorse on reflection. If we are clear and have thought through what we truly want, then when opportunities arise to do something we would really value, we can do so without thinking too much, because we would already have done the thinking beforehand. In that sense, planning to be more spontaneous is no paradox.
The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England. To suggest a question, email firstname.lastname@example.org
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