Freedom carries the burden of maintaining it. The trite saying that freedom isn’t free holds a lot of truth. To keep freedom, one must battle constantly against the forces that seek to defeat it. I’m not speaking here about external forces entirely but also forces from within. The external forces are easy to identify – the internal ones, not so much.
For example, it is easier to go along with the crowd than to separate and travel one’s own path. All our friends are going to Misty’s for dinner. Do we want to go along even though we don’t really care for Misty? If we don’t go along we’ll be forced to come up with our own alternative action plan and we don’t want to be alone tonight.
Assume we’re all Germans in the 1930s, prior to the atrocities committed by its leaders, and we have a certain amount of unease at what Hitler seems to be saying. How far do we break from the mainstream, not knowing how bad things are going to get? Do we fight against him, only suspecting what he might unleash, or do we wait until it gets really bad and we finally see the horrors? And when we finally see the truth, do we act, knowing we’re likely to be imprisoned or killed by those who run the country?
That’s an over-the-top example, but the point is that every situation calls for us to make a decision that we believe we are free to make. Sartre might say that we always get to choose our actions, whatever our situation, and therefore we are free to do as we wish and make of ourselves what we wish to be.
Neuroscientists, on the other hand, might say our choices are predetermined by chemical reactions in our brains, that when we think we’re freely choosing to raise our hands, our bodies are preparing for the movement and initiating it before we actually experience the conscious thought, so what we believe to be free will is actually an emotional or mental response to a physical condition.
I think it doesn’t really matter whether we have true freedom or not as long as we believe we do, as long as we understand that we can change for the better, because no matter how good we are, we can always be better.
Wait a second. What the heck are you talking about?
I’m talking about freedom – and I’m talking about change – because in many ways, freedom is change. Whatever thought pattern we’re experiencing, whatever routine we’re engaged in, whatever choices we selected in the past, they needn’t define our future. We can choose to step outside our comfort zones and do things that make us squirm a little if we know they’re for the betterment of ourselves, our species or our planet.
I myself am an introvert by nature, but I decided (partly to further my career as a writer) to become a volunteer host of a radio show that interviews authors. This terrified me at first, putting myself out there for people to criticize, and there was lots to criticize early on. But I stuck with it and I’m not bad at it anymore.
This change freed me to grow into something better than I was. I overcame my almost pathological shyness by working at it every day for many years. Now a crowded room doesn’t frighten me anymore. I don’t dread attending parties any longer. They may not be at the top of my list of favorite activities, but I enjoy them much more than I would have thought possible a decade or so ago.
It took a lot of work to become “free” in this regard and I still have to work at it every time I attend some social function, but afterwards I almost always feel better for having gone, for having tried, for having put myself out there.
The point is, getting stuck in routine or with the mob isn’t true freedom. Going along with others or with our comfortable ways isn’t freedom. It’s habit; it’s tradition; it’s what makes us feel good in the moment. But it isn’t freedom. Freedom is constantly pushing the envelope, observing where we are and understanding where we want to be and having the courage to try to go there, no matter what obstacles stand in our way.
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