Last summer I was on a planned trip to the United States for a few weeks and did a lot of thinking about “freedom” and what it really means. Freedom is a word that is very much in your face in the United States of America but I don’t think anyone actually agrees on what it means. After much introspection and ruminating on the subject I have discovered that for me anyway, there are two types of freedom and they are vastly different. For lack of better labels, I will call one type of freedom “personal” and the other “political”. Since these are both big subjects I will tackle my opinion most of personal freedom first but write about political freedom soon.
It is impossible to have personal freedom until we can accept and internalize the fact that the world is not a fair place. The more we lament and torture ourselves about that fact, the less freedom we have. The decisions we make and our personal behaviors certainly influence things but random forces play huge roles when it comes to outcomes. Two people may live healthy lifestyles but one person could outlive the other by decades. Behavior that for one person may have no consequence at all could land another person in prison. Ordinary but connected people may get all the breaks while the “merely” talented and ambitious struggle their entire life. There is definitely a divide but, if we allow the divide to torture us into an angry paralysis, we are being not only the victims of injustice but, of our own self-imposed inaction.
Fair? No. Reality? Yes.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to right wrongs, defend against injustice or protect the things we cherish but, if we allow these battles to consume us, we are wasting our most precious asset: LIFE. If we sacrifice our personal internal freedoms on the altar of wrongs, injustices and the elements that perpetrated them we certainly are not free. To paraphrase a Buddhist parable – someone may shoot you with a poisoned arrow but it does no good to leave it in your body while you investigate the method of attack and wait for the archer to be punished.
When we are attached to outcomes we are voluntarily sacrificing our freedoms and crawling into a cage that others have built for us. There will always be people who will and situations in which we will be treated unfairly but, while we are neurotically grasping at outcomes in one area of our lives we may blindly miss other beautiful experiences and opportunities that a truly free mind may see.
Obsessions are also a self-inflicted assault on our personal freedom. When fixation on an exclusive subject crowds out our joy we are, knowingly or not, shackling ourselves to this obsession and surrendering a large part of our freedom. This is not to say that we should not have passions and things that we care about but, we shouldn’t let obsessions, as opposed to passions, overwhelm other interests that bring us joy. When we myopically concern ourselves with the minutiae of only a few subjects we miss the beautiful spectrum of joyful things that exist just beyond our sight.
For me, it is important to try and live this life to the fullest extent possible. That means savoring the things I enjoy and trying to let negativity go. The world is a diverse place and differences of opinion are bound to exist. Hopefully, we can express our opinions with enough personal freedom that it allows us to hold, what we think are, our well-founded opinions without grasping the need to convince others that we are “right”. Personal Freedom is to me well written in Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer, “’God’ grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”. I might add, in the meantime, get on with living a life of freedom without picking up the shackles that others create for us.