Bearing freedom with a smile
This piece was just rejected from a publication where I've published before because they don't think their Christian readers would appreciate it. I don't mind the rejection - having your stuff thrown back in your face kind of goes with the territory, and I'm fine with that. But I'm puzzled by the reason - choosing to live your life according to a particular religion is a choice, is it not? At any rate, around here it is. It's in the Charter, the Bill of Rights, etc. Religion may help you not feel so much fear and anxiety in your life, since it removes a few choices from your day-to-day life. It's kind of like routines that way. But following a religion is not necessarily a life-long thing, or even a 100%-take-it-or-leave-it thing; some people cherry-pick, others move in and out of religion, for all sorts of reasons. That's still your decision to make, in freedom. But even if you live religiously, are you not still in control of your life? Aren't there still lots of areas in your life that aren't decided by it? Like what subjects you'll study in school, what job you take, or whom you'll agree to marry. Anyhow. The piece is below. You tell me what you think.
Bearing the cost of freedom – with a smile
“Freedom comes with choice and choice comes with responsibility. Why do people willingly give up their freedom to a boss, a method or even a despot? (…) Sometimes, we willingly sacrifice our freedom because it creates an other, someone to blame. It gives us hard boundaries and eliminates potential choices. And mostly, it lets us off the hook, because someone else is driving the bus. Trying to drive from the back of the bus might feel less risky, but it rarely leads to much agency, influence or control as to where the bus actually goes. Careful what you do with the keys.” - the great Seth Godin recently on his website.
Oh, how. Freedom is one of the scariest things in the world, because it puts you in charge of everything that matters. Making choices is exhausting. That’s why we value daily routines so much.
Freedom is also, paradoxically, one of the most sought after and highly valued things in the world, because everywhere freedom is denied you find human misery. OK, you can find human misery anywhere if you look hard enough. But in unfree societies misery in abundance results from a systematic negation of human dignity.
Freedom matters so much that countless humans are willing to fight and sometimes die to get it. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone willing to cross the sea in a dinghy to go live in a dictatorship.
It’s obvious why. To be the best version of ourselves we can be, we need freedom. But at the same time, freedom is like the Grand Canyon: Big, cavernous, and potentially very dangerous if you fail to treat it with the respect it deserves.
Humans are hardwired to demand freedom. But we are terribly ill-equipped to deal with its potential dangers. That’s why it’s so crucial to teach children how to handle it. They need to know what to do with it so that when they finally begin to spread their wings they don’t get snagged on the first obstacle.
Young kids bristle at the control their parents exert over their lives. They want – nay, need – to control something, anything. When they get very frustrated by their lack of agency, they throw a tantrum. The greater the frustration, the more epic the tantrum. Because once the kid is on the floor kicking and screaming like a space alien from the planet Utterkaos, Mom has to stop what she’s doing and pay attention. (No, running away and abandoning the seemingly possessed offspring to the benevolence of strangers is not a realistic option. Sorry.)
“OK, fine, I’ll get you the lollipop. Just please stop being so hysterical.”
Anything to make it stop.
The child has won. A trivial war, to be sure. But in the child’s mind getting their parent to relent and get them the stupid candy is a huge victory. (That’s why, as a practical aside, smart parenting experts recommend giving children some control over relatively insignificant aspects of their lives from an early age – not “do you want to take a bath?” but “do you want to take a bath with the red duckie, or the blue duckie?” – to get them used to making some decisions and especially avoid cringe-worthy displays of frustration. The duckie example comes from the awesome Super Nanny.)
A little freedom is great. But what would happen if you gave your toddler free reign? Right. They’d be dead in no time flat.
Teenagers don’t throw themselves on the floor. But they embarrass their parents with rebellious outbursts all the same. They think they’re ready to make their own decisions and feel their parents are square in the way of that independence. So they buck – sometimes hard.
Drugs, sex, mischief – sometimes mild, sometimes prison-worthy – ensues as inevitably as night follows day. Some teens get away with it, some get caught… by the law or by the consequences. At that stage in life, when you’re in a family situation that does not foster independence (or responsibility; despite long lectures on that very topic, many controlling parents refuse to grant their kids the space they need to learn true responsibility by making small mistakes), your entire life becomes consumed by the need to exert control… and not get caught.
You learn cunning. You learn to sneak around. You learn to lie, camouflage and hide. You learn the art of being devious behind a pleasant enough façade. You learn to live with yourself despite the profoundly uncomfortable knowledge that you are in fact a fraud. A clever fraud, sure. But nevertheless…
It’s only once you’ve had to face the consequences of your actions, often in the form of a bill, that you stop fighting so hard for your independence. Suddenly the truth hits you smack in the gob: Freedom is hard work.
The grown adult, after a few years of facing the cost of his independence, may start to want a wee bit less of it. Enter the overly controlling boss. Or the benevolent politician who promises a fool-proof safety net. There is much cajoling and seducing going on, with evocative images of carefree happiness, devoid of unpleasant accountability. Rest your heavy head on my broad shoulders, the politician says, and I will look after you. No longer will you have to sweat anxiously, sitting up in bed at night wondering if you made the right decisions. You don’t need to burden yourself with so many tough choices. I will protect your job so no one can fire you. I will protect your salary and benefits. I will stop meanies from taking advantage of you. I will envelop you in a soft cocoon inside which you’ll feel secure, relieved, and relaxed.
It’s seductive, alright. But also very dangerous. For man is not made to live constrained by the dictates of others. There is no way for humans to develop their full potential other than in freedom. We have to be challenged by situations where risks and potential losses can become painfully concrete in a heartbeat. The potential pain is very real. But on the flip side, those same situations offer us our only shot at real success and profound happiness.
No politician, however benevolent, no autocratic boss, can make us happy. For happiness lives inside all of us, and blossoms when we believe we’ve achieved that for which we were put on this planet, especially if we had to defy considerable odds to get there.
The person sitting at the back of the bus in Seth Godin’s example knows this. And he probably hates himself for having relinquished the steering wheel. But that ability to decide where he would drive to was so scary…
People who choose to live according to their own rules have to deal with fear every day. The fear that comes with knowing there are a whole bunch of holes in the safety net, an absence of someone else to blame for our mistakes and shortcomings. When you’re sitting at the back of the bus, you can grumble and blame the driver for not allowing you to live to your full potential. But when you’re in charge…
So how should we deal with that fear? How can we manage the intractable tension between having enough freedom to realize our potential but not so much freedom that we fear a misstep that will plunge us to our doom?
You could read philosophy. I highly recommend the Stoics. But I’m afraid nobody has found an easy solution yet. We’re stuck with more existential angst than we care for. That is one of those immutable laws of nature, at least where human beings are concerned.
What’s needed is a serious toughening of the metaphysical hide, through repeated exposure to the thing we both want and dread the most. Get used to the fear, the anxiety. Make it your friend. In the end, we have no choice but to reconcile ourselves with the intractable anxieties freedom brings if we want to reach our grave satisfied that we lived our life to the fullest, according to our own priorities, no matter what.
We must grin and bear it. Because while driving the bus of our destiny is scary, sitting passively at the back as it barrels down someone else’s road is worse.