With the 4th of July just past, most of us have been at least unconsciously reflecting on freedom, but a lot of people are confused about what that really is. As I shared in my first post on the subject last week, freedom isn’t the ability to do whatever you want. Freedom is your capacity to be your best self in every moment; the ability to do what’s best for yourself and others at all times, regardless of your feelings to the contrary or the pressures you’re under.
But that’s terrifying and most of us don’t have the courage to be truly free. Do you?
In his classic book, Escape From Freedom, Eric Fromm argues that the last thing most people want is to be free because freedom requires work, responsibility and the willingness to put up with a lot of pressure and rejection from others who will be threatened by your freedom. Because most people don’t want the hassle of all this, we settle for pretending to be free and we retreat into one of three alternatives to true freedom; namely, Control/Manipulation, Self-Destruction, Conformity.
Freedom requires us to admit that however good we are, we are not quite good enough as we are (because there are so many times we can’t muster the strength to be our best selves) and that we need a lot of work to get there. Life challenges us to grow in many different, unexpected ways, reminding us of how much we have to grow. If we embrace this growth, we can be free. But most of us would rather try to control our environment (and the people in it) than allow ourselves to be challenged by our environment to grow and change.
Most people settle for pretending they’re just fine–thank you very much–and, instead, assert that it’s everybody else who has to change to support them in their delusions of perfection. If I adopt this escape from freedom, rather than admitting that I am a good but still broken person who needs to challenge myself to grow into my true, authentically free self, I will rage at any person or organization or circumstance that even dares to imply that I’m not awesome just the way I am.
Such a person likes to think of him or herself as a victim (persecuted by that individual, organization, or circumstance who fails to affirm them in their okayness). This victim-thinking justifies all manner of abusive behavior in return. As long as I can think of myself as a victim, I can bully, pressure, attack, name-call, and manipulate you with impunity… and feel good about it to boot.
Even so, people who adopt the controlling/manipulative posture can never be happy because they know they are incapable of being their best selves (or unwilling to be their best selves) and blaming and bullying–even if it becomes a way of life– gets old fast.
Freedom requires us to exercise responsibility and demonstrate a commitment to becoming better than we are.
But that’s “boring” (i.e., “hard work”) so most people would rather engage in, unconsciously, self-destructive behavior. Why? Because if I won’t improve myself, I will inevitably become dissatisfied with my life and, in disgust and frustration, I will be driven to destroy what I’ve come to hate. Under the guise of easing the pressure of my unsatisfying life, I’ll engage in excessive drinking and drugging, promiscuity, partying, self-indulgence, and other socially-acceptable tools that enable me to escape from true freedom and anesthetize myself into oblivion.
Freedom requires us to “own” our beliefs and principles and to admit that we are the only ones responsible for our successes and failures. It also requires us to be OK disappointing others when their agendas clash with our beliefs and principles.
But that’s terrifying. No one wants to be that exposed or to risk not being approved-of or accepted. Most of us would rather have someone else to blame when following our principles leads to complications. We would like to blame, or at least diffuse the blame among our family, our church, our community or peers. We choose to conform to a group so that we have psychological cover when the existential shit hits the fan. “I’m not responsible for this mess, my mom and dad are. My church is. My friends made me do it. ‘They‘ told me it was OK.”
Conformity isn’t the same thing as agreement. Agreement means that you’ve checked out an idea for yourself and you believe it to be true. That four million other people also happen to believe the same thing is besides the point. You heard it. You tested it. You agree with it. By contrast, conformity just swallows the pill whole without checking the label to see whether you’ve been given a vitamin or poison.
A lot of people think that one has to be a “lone wolf” to be free. That’s not true. In fact, many alleged “lone wolves” are just conforming to a different, but equally unexamined, doctrine that is a mere reaction-formation (i.e., unthinking opposite) to where they come from. Such lives are not so much defined by what other people tell them to believe, but by what other people have told them they were stupid for believing and shouldn’t believe any more.
There is nothing new under the sun. Inevitably, we must find some group of like-minded people to ally ourselves with. That’s not necessarily conformity. A person can, after evaluating the veracity of their parents’, church’s, community’s or peers’ truth claims for themselves, be a willing, happy, believing member of that group. But the difference is that such people still recognize that they are solely responsible (not the family, community, church or peers) for the choices they make, the priorities they set, and the life they live.
Can you Handle Freedom?
If you want to be free, look at the areas of your life ruled by your own attempts at control/manipulation, self-destruction, and unthinking conformity and ask yourself what you need to do to leave it behind.
True freedom can only be found by taking up that challenging, terrifying, incredibly rewarding quest.
This post currently has
You can read the comments or leave your own thoughts.
Last reviewed: 5 Jul 2012