There is an interesting thread of thoughts about the concept of “freedom” going on throughout the self-reliance and unconventional life blogosphere (what, you didn’t know there was such a thing? Well, I just said so, on the internet, so it must be true).
I picked up the thread while reading Niall Ferguson’s “The Impossibility of Freedom.” He refers to one of the ultimate stories of freedom, that of Chris McCandless, a young hitchhiker who, through poor planning and ignorance, starved to death while trying to be “free” in the Alaskan wilderness. Niall talks about several other reasons that he doesn’t feel that people can be – or should be – truly “free”, such as political factors and obligations both from your own sense of “duty” as well as to other long-term contacts.
His thread led me to Tyler Tervooren’s Advanced Riskology and the “4 Imminent Threats to Your Freedom (and What to Do About Them)“. His idea of freedom seems to be more about self-reliance and living a courageous life helping others be more free (or at least trying not to take more of their freedom away from them).
He is also friends with J.D. Roth, author of the Get Rich Slowly blog, who also wondered “Can Money Buy Freedom?” J.D.’s opinion is that “Freedom is being able to do what you want, when you want.” That’s a beautifully Buddhist sentiment, I think; since it can be argued that we are always choosing our actions, therefore we are always doing what we actually want to do, and therefore we are already free! All that remains is to sit there and realize our Buddha-nature and live happily ever after, right?
(sigh) Ah, if only it were that simple.
Awareness: the Currency of Freedom
J.D.’s friend Michelle took him to task for his simplistic definition. “You have to somehow be aware of what your options are. You have to be conscious that youâre making choices that reflect your values, choices that allow you to do what you want, when you want.”
I think it’s even harder than that. Think about the levels of awareness that are necessary in order to reach that kind of freedom that J.D. talks about:
- Awareness of what your values actually are (as opposed to those that are socialized into you by your upbringing and your surroundings and your habits)
- Awareness of making conscious choices, as opposed to just reacting.
- Awareness of what your options actually are, as opposed to what you’re told they are.
- Awareness of what the actual results of your choices will be.
It’s that last one that really is a stinker. Like the poet says, mice and men don’t have the best track record for plans resulting in the desired intention. But we keep making them anyway, and keep on trying to adjust so that our lives will look something like what we think we want them to. We don’t sit so that we can realize how happy we are; we sit so that we can be better aware, and maybe be a little better at making the choices that we need to make.
It’s like that beautiful philosophical masterpiece The Matrix, when Neo is trying to come to terms with the fact that as a hacker, he has control of the computer world he is trapped in:
Neo: What are you trying to tell me? That I can dodge bullets?
Morpheus: No, Neo. I’m trying to tell you that when you’re ready, you won’t have to.
That’s the idea. We become better at making choices that are aligned with our true selves, so there simply are fewer things heading our way that get in the way of our happiness. I’ve known some people who do it well. People whose lives seem to be completely in sync with their desires, whose desires are completely known to them, and whose every choice and decision seems to move them inexorably through the turmoils of life towards whatever their next goal.
That’s what it looks like to me, anyway. Then again, when I talk to them, ask them how they do it, their response is usually that they feel just as messed up as anyone.
What Kind of Freedom Did You Buy?
I don’t think that J.D. or Niall or Tyler are necessarily disagreeing with each other; there are certainly varieties of freedom. I recently returned to Seattle, my new home, after a five-week road trip literally across the U.S. Many times while on the road, people would look at me enviously, expressing a desire to have the “freedom” to travel.
They’re right – I have the freedom to travel, because I am self-employed. Now, that also gives me the freedom from a regular paycheck, employer-subsidized insurance, and a good credit rating. I am aware of that cost, and pay it gladly; I’ve tried paying for those “secure” things by working for large corporate beauracracies, and the price is too high.
When I got “home” (and someday I hope to be able to type that word without the quotes), a place that I have lived less time than I’ve been traveling, the bed, the room, the furnishings all looked unfamiliar. I had thought I would enjoy coming back to my belongings…but I’d forgotten that most of my possessions are still in storage from before the move, and I took most of what I own with me on the road trip.
During the road trip, I was free to meet and connect with hundreds of people. I saw old friends and made new ones, taught classes and performed in shows and got applause and accolades and even some interesting new opportunities for this blog.
But when I got “home” I was experiencing a different kind of freedom: freedom from a pet, a lover, a family to greet me. As Stanley Kunitzwrote, I have made myself a tribe out of my true affections, and my tribe is scattered! What was I to do with this life I have chosen for myself, which at times seems so filled with riches and then seems so empty?
I begin to fill it. I make myself less free by resuming my morning rituals, by creating tasks for myself, for encumbering my hours with work and responsibilities and endeavors. It’s not quite dodging bullets, not by a long shot, but it is something.
Perhaps the real meaning of freedom is being able to clearly choose which type of liberty you gain by your choices. Until you reach that point, though, I’m not sure that the word is as much of a blessing as we take it to be.