Constraints and Character

Most of us have experienced the Pandemic as constraining our freedom in one way or another.  More personally, I have recently experienced a pervasive dust allergy (which I have had since New Years of 2019), and the failure to buy a certain house, as a constraint on my freedom.


In an economic model of rationality, constraints are always bad or neutral when imposed on a perfectly rational agent, but can never be embraced as a good thing.  Let's try to make this more mathematically precise.  Suppose that you have some set of choices:

{A, B, C, D...}

which are ranked in order of your preference:

A > B > C > D...

Now suppose that we impose a constraint on your choices.  Is this good or bad for you?

Well, it all depends on whether it eliminates your best option.  If we eliminate choice C, you can still pick your best choice A.  Hence, the constraint is neutral—you get to do what you wanted either way.

On the other hand, if option is eliminated, then you are forced to pick your second best choice B, and if both A and B are eliminated, you are forced to pick C.  In this case, the constraint is bad—you get something you don't like as much as your first choice!

In this model of rationality, eliminating a choice never improves your best option.  So constraints can only be bad.  (For you, that is.  You might like there to be constraints on other people to prevent them from hurting you in specific ways.)

If your best option was C, for example, then you wouldn't have wanted to pick A or B anyway?  In this case, your choice shouldn't depend on whether A or B were options.

On the other hand, if for eample A was your best choice, then you will be forced to pick your second best option.  (And if that second best option was B, then you will be forced to pick the 3rd best option.)

In no circumstances can such a perfectly rational agent experience a constraint on their choices as a good thing.  Giving them more choices can only be a good thing, since either taking one of the extra options is better (in which case they will take it), or it isn't (in which case they won't).

With me so far?


All of that is a prelude to saying this: in real life human beings are very far from being such "perfectly rational" agents.  This means that the model is inapplicable.  For us, constraints are so often a good thing.

In reality, there are lots of `hard choices' where we would never consider that choice (or even think of it as being on our menu of options) if we weren't driven to do so based on constraints (because the easier option, or the one we would immediately prefer, was taken off the table).

Yet, these are often the choices that tend to develop our character the most.  By this I mean that these choices give us the ability to appreciate new kinds of rewarding expereiences, to develop skills which give us more freedom and power, to empathize with a broader range of people, and to have a better grasp on invisible realities.

A lot of the humility that comes from getting older is realizing the ways in which constraints have helped to turn you into the person that God wants you to be.  So this can open your eyes to maybe believe that the constraints you are currently chafing under are the same sort of thing.  As the New Testament says:

Have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son?  It says,

“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline,
and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,
because the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.”

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father?  If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all.  Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it.  How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live!  They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness.  No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.

Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees.  “Make level paths for your feet”, so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.  (Hebrews 12)

One form that divine discipline takes, is our experience of the constraints inherent to earthy life, which so often forces us to take paths other than the ones we want to take.  Yet, when we take those paths, we often find things along them which we would never have noticed if we had gone the direction we wanted to originally.

Nobody is so good of a person that they can say, "I don't need to be hemmed in and constrained; my moral character will develop just as well if I develop it autonomously through my own voluntary choices of how to interact with the world, as if I am forced to respond to external circumstances I would rather avoid."

In fact, not even Christ (who was without sin) was able to say that:

For in bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was entirely appropriate that God--for whom and through whom all things exist--should make the source of their salvation perfect [that is: complete] through sufferings.  (Heb 2:10)


Living during a pandemic is a type of disability.  That is, it makes you un-able to do things you would otherwise be able to do.  (Obviously, you will be even more disabled if you actually catch the disease.)

No Christian can accept the view, advocated by some, that disability is inherently good; simply a way of being "differently-abled" as the PC term from the 90's had it.  If this were true, it would have been wrong for Christ to heal those who were deaf, blind, and lame.

On the other hand, no Christian can deny God's ability to paradoxically use suffering and disability in a redemptive way.  Otherwise, it would have been wrong for Christ to say that the poor were blessed; for him to go to the Cross, and to tell us to pick up our own crosses and follow him.

Without plumbing the depths of these theological mysteries, here is a somewhat more pedestrian way of thinking about the dignity and value of disabled people (which remember, is all of us at the moment).

Humanity has a great deal of potential.  There are many, many skills that we can develop as human beings.  For example, people can learn to play an instrument, or to garden.  People can ponder the universe or socialize with others or play games.  They can retreat to the wilderness, become a hermit, and find God in the mysterious silence of creation.  Or, they can join a non-profit, advocate on behalf of the poor and needy, and find God in serving others.  They can do some of these things at some times, and other things at other times.

One tentative idea for expressing the dignity of disabled people, is to say that no matter how many of these activities are taken off the table for you, there still remains a nearly infinite number of options that are on the table, which represent ways of flourishing.  And if you actually take one of these roads, you will probably find the same sorts of happinessand opportunity for growth that you would have found on another road.

(Admittedly there some limits to how far we can understand this.  If somebody is in a permanent coma, with no higher mental functions, obviously there's some sense in which, for that person, at that time, everything has been taken off the table, besides bare biological existence.  Christians, who believe that all humans are created in the image of God, are bound to find some dignity even in a life like this.  But this blog post isn't really about such extreme cases.  If you are reading this blog post, then you still have your higher brain functions and that means you aren't in a situation like that.)

True, if you used to enjoy doing something specific, which now you can't do, you are likely to miss it.  And that might make you feel bad.  But objectively, there's still a lot for you to do which you can still do, which you can find if you put your mind to it.

Or you could just kvetch about our current moment in history, and fail to see these opportunities.


A lot of what people are trying to do during this time, is try to figure out how to do the things they would have been doing if there had been no Pandemic.  (E.g. How can we safely open schools, or have schools move to online settings.  How can we keep the economy running?  How can we have a normal social life?)

All these are good questions to ask.  But we should also ask what options might be available (or salient) to us during this time which weren't options before.  (For example, before the Pandemic started, I didn't have the option to attend churches I'd belonged to in the USA, while living in the UK.  But this year, I can.)

Ask yourself in what ways things might be better for you:

♠  What useful work (possibly for pay) is available to me now, that wasn't available before?

♠  In what ways am I now resting, where I was overtaxing myself before?

♠  Are there any new opportunities to develop friendships in a deeper way?

♠  Or, new opportunities for solitude?

♠  Or, more time to spend with immediate family members?

♠  Were my children actually being well served by their school?  Maybe they'd benefit from home schooling.  (Or from taking a break and doing something different for a while.)

♠  Is this my chance to start a new hobby?

♠  Which spiritual disciplines can I cultivate?

OK, so your life is cramped into a smaller location then it used to be...  but maybe there's a kind of metaphorical Uncertainty Principle, which increases your possible momentum when your position is restricted.

Those who don't cling to property, may find that they own everything.  Those who are forced to remain in one physical location, may journey farther in their prayers.  Those who are deprived of obvious political power, may learn the greater power of solidarity with others.  Those without a future on Earth, may gain eternity.

About Aron Wall

I am a Lecturer in Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge. Before that, I read Great Books at St. John's College (Santa Fe), got my physics Ph.D. from U Maryland, and did my postdocs at UC Santa Barbara, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and Stanford. The views expressed on this blog are my own, and should not be attributed to any of these fine institutions.
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2 Responses to Constraints and Character

  1. J Blick says:

    Thanks Aron Wall


    In the pressing is where our Father releases the sweetness!

    Thanks for your fabulous article, I enjoyed it very much.

    Kind regards

    Jo B

    Outback NSW

  2. Juan says:

    Bravo Aron! Your blog is fascinating, thank you very much.

    It would be very interesting if you could comment on "Closed Timelike Curves" and "Causal loops", I find them very odd and attractive. Plus, the theological implications are HUGE.
    Thanks again!

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