The topic of freedom is an intensely philosophical one, and one that I hesitate to broach. People significantly more intelligent than I have written much more eloquently on the topic than I could ever hope to, and sadly I have most likely not read 99% of them. But recent events have led me to an extended examination of the concept and a clarification of what is means and why it is so important.
I am sure that at some point in your life you all have had the experience of reading something that spoke a Truth to you – something that resonated with you, something that perfectly captured your thoughts and beliefs. Not just something you agreed with, but something that felt as though the author had climbed inside your brain, distilled how you felt, and then put it into words. In my personal experience, when these moments occur they are characterized by an irrefutable recognition of what you consider to be True. Well, the other day I had one of these experiences while reading a blog entry about a man who lived in his van while he was getting his graduate degree.
In order to understand how I came to read this blog and why I’m writing this post requires me to back a bit however. It started because I missed my car. You see, while I was in Canada I got myself injured and so have been staying at a friend’s house for the past 6 weeks while recovering. I am incredibly thankful for the comforts and the ability to rest here, but a month or so after I arrived I started feeling an intense longing to be back in my car; I found myself thinking of being cocooned in my backseat at night reading by headlamp, despite the discomfort and the radically more supportive bed in which I have been sleeping. This struck me as strange at first but upon more thought what I think I missed was the feeling of engagement with the world that comes from making choices everyday and of having infinite possibilities to act upon. It wasn’t that I was wishing that I were somewhere else or doing something else but more just a desire for the independence and freedom that comes from having the means to choose my actions. But so, this longing resulted in me reading the aforementioned blog where I came across his description of freedom:
“I am obsessed with freedom. I am a freedom extremist. I’m not trying to sound grandiloquent; I have issues. I can sense the slightest abridgment of my freedom like a princess feeling the impression of a pea under 40 featherbeds and mattresses. I feel it when I’m in romantic relationships. I feel it when I’m given a gift. I feel it when someone holds even the faintest influence over me. And when I feel it… [it] feels so overpowering that I have to talk myself out of rashly fleeing and separating myself from that which controls me.”
– Ken Ilgunas (emphasis in the original)
I have written about my intense desire to be free before but if its still not obvious how fundamental I believe this to be, let me be more clear. I cannot bear the feeling of being enslaved: not to a job, not to relationships, not to the expectations of people or society, not to people who need me to be indebted to them, and not to a place to live or to the stuff that fills it. I value my autonomy above all else – especially since now I truly have it. But this autonomy is not just about being exempt from having to participate in the market economy and of having to submit to the dictated social and cultural norms. And it is not just liberation from being manipulated by the structural inequalities inherent in economic and social relationships. Autonomy is also not a reactionary withdrawal from the “threat” of being subsumed, but an ability to act in fulfilling individual purpose and with accordance to conscience – to be responsible, to recognize reality as it exists, and to respond with respect, care, and concern. It is not detachment and stagnation, but action and engagement. And it is this ability to act that I value most.
So while that quote captured the true meaning of one aspect of freedom, it was incomplete. But reading it was also important because it made me recall a recent conversation and got me thinking about this second aspect of autonomy. Right after I injured myself a friend said to me that he was ‘sorry that I couldn’t do what I wanted to do.’ At the time of that conversation I took this statement very literally, rebutting that it didn’t matter since I don’t feel dependent on being able to travel in order to maintain a sense of well-being. Which is not to mention that I feel extremely lucky to be able to live as I please to begin with. Recalling the conversation though perhaps this was a not only a recognition of what my autonomy means to me or a reference to the fact that a serious-enough injury could potentially necessitate having to return to participating in the very societal structures from which I have sought freedom, but an acknowledgment that even a temporary interruption of my journey (which could be understood as a threat to the first kind of freedom) might make it difficult to retain this second kind of freedom – the ability to live according to my purpose and my place in the larger world. After all, it is precisely because I am privileged to be free from societal constraints that I have developed the ability to be aware and conscious and to take action that supports my beliefs. It would appear that I am still incapable of learning my lessons in real time as they are presented to me.
And so, the recollection of that conversation led me to consider freedom not as exemption from control but as moral responsibility. It is not just freedom from (wage work, routine, stagnant “life”, convention, the false choices presented to us by society, the need to control our lives to alleviate fear) but freedom to: To think, to understand and recognize what is important, to make decisions, to be happy, to choose to accept circumstances, to act when appropriate, and ultimately, to choose who we want to be as individuals without the submitting to the imposition of norms, obligations, and expectations. Real freedom is to realize the individual you are and to live and act according to your ideals. It is to examine your thoughts and beliefs, to challenge what you know and what you’ve been indoctrinated with. It is to question and consider. It is to engage in critical thinking. It is to do these things in order to relate to others in the world around you with care and responsibility. It is to search for meaning and truth in order to determine the best way to live. And: It is to act according to your conscience.