Robert Kwasny

GSP student Robert Kwasny examines the issue of free will through the framework of  Susan Griffin’s essay “Our Secret.” Exploring Griffin’s ideas, along with his own grandfather’s history growing up during WW II, Kwasney argues that those who believe they are the architects of their own destiny may be fooling themselves…

Focusing on content rather than the underlying ideas is equivalent to merely scratching the surface of a problem. If approached this way, either Our Secret is about all the things mentioned above and a dozen more, or Griffin decided to ramble pointlessly for fifty pages. However, if we do not settle for an easy answer, we will find that everything that Griffin says boils down to a common theme. Griffin’s Our Secret is about free will.

In the times of World War II my grandfather was a little kid, just a few years old. He had several siblings, I cannot even remember how many, and he was the youngest one. When the threat of death to the family became real, most of the adults and children left. They decided that my grandfather was too young to survive the trip. He was left with friends of the family, who refused to go. When the Red Army came, they were looking for Germans. What is today Poland’s territory, back then belonged to Germany, and he could barely speak Polish. He was basically a German. Even his name was Horst. When the soldiers came to the house, the whole family – according to what I have been told – tried to be as un-German as possible. To this day no one can explain to me what that actually means, though my suspicion is that women just tried to look pretty, and men did their best not to drink any beer. Everything was going fine until everyone stopped in his or her tracks when my grandfather asked for food in the only language he could speak fairly fluently. Fortunately, the soldiers either missed it or ignored it on purpose. He was one of the lucky ones to survive the war. Later in his life, Horst started using his second name, Robert. Being German in any way in Poland is yet to become fashionable.

Over sixty years later, in 2007, the “family” was reunited. My grandfather tracked down his siblings, most of whom were still alive, and we traveled to Stolpen, Germany to meet our long lost relatives. Neither of the parties knew the other’s language, so we had to communicate through an interpreter. Everyone tried his or her best to find a common ground but with little success. Though we shared the same blood, we were simply too different from one another. Not antagonistic or suspicious, just different. Our lives have been drastically different, and thus we could not connect on an emotional level. We had a talk over a cup of coffee, but no one shed any tears.  

The striking, insurmountable barrier between my grandfather and his brothers and sisters is an example of what Griffin says about free will. We do like to believe that who we are is up to us. However, we are, to a great extent, a product of the world we live in. We do not get to choose where and when we are born, what we look like or what our race is. Fundamental decisions about who we are made for us. Not coincidentally, some of them are made by our parents.    

Griffin writes about Heinrich Himmler’s childhood, “The earliest entries in this diary betray so little. Like the words of a schoolboy commanded to write what the teacher requires of him, they are wooden and stiff. The stamp of his father’s character is so heavy on this language that I catch not even a breath of self here. It is easy to see how this would be true. One simply has to imagine Gebhard standing behind Heinrich and tapping his foot” (302).

Though this example of a parent’s influence is undoubtedly radical, it is also straightforward. Some parts of his behavior, worldview and personality were as if chiseled in the stone by his father. Young Heinrich did not even get a chance to protest or rebel. That is why we should give up the illusion that we control everything that happens to us

Focusing on content rather than the underlying ideas is equivalent to merely scratching the surface of a problem. If approached this way, either Our Secret is about all the things mentioned above and a dozen more, or Griffin decided to ramble pointlessly for fifty pages. However, if we do not settle for an easy answer, we will find that everything that Griffin says boils down to a common theme. Griffin’s Our Secret is about free will.

In the times of World War II my grandfather was a little kid, just a few years old. He had several siblings, I cannot even remember how many, and he was the youngest one. When the threat of death to the family became real, most of the adults and children left. They decided that my grandfather was too young to survive the trip. He was left with friends of the family, who refused to go. When the Red Army came, they were looking for Germans. What is today Poland’s territory, back then belonged to Germany, and he could barely speak Polish. He was basically a German. Even his name was Horst. When the soldiers came to the house, the whole family – according to what I have been told – tried to be as un-German as possible. To this day no one can explain to me what that actually means, though my suspicion is that women just tried to look pretty, and men did their best not to drink any beer. Everything was going fine until everyone stopped in his or her tracks when my grandfather asked for food in the only language he could speak fairly fluently. Fortunately, the soldiers either missed it or ignored it on purpose. He was one of the lucky ones to survive the war. Later in his life, Horst started using his second name, Robert. Being German in any way in Poland is yet to become fashionable. 

Over sixty years later, in 2007, the “family” was reunited. My grandfather tracked down his siblings, most of whom were still alive, and we traveled to Stolpen, Germany to meet our long lost relatives. Neither of the parties knew the other’s language, so we had to communicate through an interpreter. Everyone tried his or her best to find a common ground but with little success. Though we shared the same blood, we were simply too different from one another. Not antagonistic or suspicious, just different. Our lives have been drastically different, and thus we could not connect on an emotional level. We had a talk over a cup of coffee, but no one shed any tears.   

The striking, insurmountable barrier between my grandfather and his brothers and sisters is an example of what Griffin says about free will. We do like to believe that who we are is up to us. However, we are, to a great extent, a product of the world we live in. We do not get to choose where and when we are born, what we look like or what our race is. Fundamental decisions about who we are made for us. Not coincidentally, some of them are made by our parents.    

Griffin writes about Heinrich Himmler’s childhood, “The earliest entries in this diary betray so little. Like the words of a schoolboy commanded to write what the teacher requires of him, they are wooden and stiff. The stamp of his father’s character is so heavy on this language that I catch not even a breath of self here. It is easy to see how this would be true. One simply has to imagine Gebhard standing behind Heinrich and tapping his foot” (302).

Though this example of a parent’s influence is undoubtedly radical, it is also straightforward. Some parts of his behavior, worldview and personality were as if chiseled in the stone by his father. Young Heinrich did not even get a chance to protest or rebel. That is why we should give up the illusion that we control everything that happens to us

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