Freedom: A Dialogue

B: I wish I was free.

P: That’s great.

B: What can you possibly mean by that?

P: Well, you already are.

B: Haha. Do not be so naive. I live my life pay check to pay check. My weeks are spent working, and oftentimes my weekends as well. It’s all I can do to get by. There is so much that I cannot do, for I do not have the means to do it. Encumbered as I am by my low socioeconomic standing, coupled with a myriad of other factors, ranging, as they were, from a government that clearly doesn’t have my best interests as its top priority, a populace that seems to overlook my meager existence, and a long-list of childhood experiences that impeded my natural development and, as such, impact my functioning as an adult, well, let’s just suffice it to say that lack of freedom is a foregone conclusion, and certainly one that I needn’t have spent so much time spelling out for you.

P: These are all forces over which you have no control.

B: Of course they are. What else would they be? Freedom, or lack thereof, is determined by circumstance; by outside factors over which I have no influence, but that have a great deal of influence over me. They restrict my ability to act as I would act, to live as I would live. Freedom is in the uncompromising ability to do what one wishes when one wishes.

P: This is a narrow view of freedom. Furthermore, it is a view that puts you in a powerless position. You can only wish that things were other than what they are. Perhaps you will try to influence them – and that might very well be a worthy undertaking – but it is unlikely that you will ever dismantle each and every system that you experience as imposing its will upon you. Furthermore, you are acting from a one-down position. You are claiming that your ability to experience freedom is contingent upon the world around you. I propose that freedom, genuine freedom, is an internal experience, never an external one.

B: I propose that you are wrong.

P: Take Victor Frankl. He was a prisoner at Auschwitz during WWII. He famously asserted that, at its core, man’s freedom is in the ability to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances; to choose one’s own way no matter the conditions in which one finds oneself. In spite of every type of external suffering imposed on him, and they were as numerous and brutal as can be imagined, Victor Frankl still had an experience of internal freedom.

B: That is an inspiring example, but certainly an exception rather than the rule. He had no other recourse, and so he defined freedom as something that comes from within. But I still maintain that freedom is circumstantial. And he certainly, by my definition, was far from free.

P: Ok. But there will always be external limitations that restrict our ability to exercise complete freedom with regards to behavior. Regardless of how free a society is (and I mean that in the way that you are defining the word; i.e. lack of oppressive forces from the outside) there will always be constraints on our freedom. If this is the definition of freedom that you insist on, then go ahead and resign yourself to a life that will forever fall short of the freedom that you desire.

But, perhaps you might reconsider the definition of freedom that you have chosen. Take the words of Antoine de Saint-Exupery, as they echo those of Victor Frankl, “I know but one freedom and that is the freedom of the mind.”

B: You can find quotes all day that prove the point you are trying to make, as can I. But it remains abstract. I, on the other hand, offer a clear definition: Freedom is the right to act without hindrance or restraint. It is the uninhibited ability to do whatever it is I wish to do at the moment I wish to do it.

P: Ok. So freedom is about letting your impulses run wild. Unhindered. With reckless abandon. Do you think that is a valid means by which to organize a society? Give everybody complete liberty to act on whatever impulse they have at the moment they have it?

B: No, I suppose not. Of course a society like that would never last. We need checks and balances in place that restrain our behavior, otherwise we would turn into barbarians.

P: Right. So complete and utter freedom as you define it would lead to complete and utter chaos. And you admit that some limits on freedom are actually a good thing. So, you have run yourself into a dead-end without an exit. You claim, on the one hand, to desire freedom while, at the same time, and on the other hand, you admit that freedom would be destructive.

B: I guess you’re right…

P: So, would you like to consider a different definition of freedom altogether? One that might save you from the bind you have wound yourself up in? So long as you reside in the definition of freedom you insist on, this double-bind is the only result.

B: Ok. I concede. Yes, let’s explore the other type.

P: The definition of freedom I propose is akin to that offered by Frankl and Antoine.

It is the ability to choose your own state of mind regardless of whatever set of external circumstances you happen to be experiencing in the moment.

No matter how limited those circumstances are, no matter how tyrannical, even, you retain the right to your own state of mind. Nobody can determine your inner world for you but you, regardless of how they might try.

The ability, no matter the circumstance, to choose your inner state, is freedom. In this sense, you are already free. It is the only way it ever could be.

B: I suppose you are right… Only I determine my inner dialogue. And, assuming that that is freedom, then, like you said, I am always free.

But why, if that is indeed the case, do I go to such lengths to avoid this truth? Why do I pretend, as it were, that I am very much not free?

P: To admit to the complete and utter freedom this very moment offers you is, apparently, incredibly disturbing.

B: Apparently so. But why?

P: Well, one argument is that it is always nice to have a scapegoat. Something or someone to take the attention and pressure off of yourself. If you’re unhappy, dissatisfied, and so on, it is more convenient to blame this on something or someone other than yourself.

Furthermore, you get to give voice to the claim that you wish you were happier or you wish your life were different, and, in the very same breath, you get to blame some external force as the thing that is preventing you from achieving that which you wish to achieve. Thus, you can maintain the drama, “I wish I were free. If I were, I would really make something of myself. But I am not, and as such I am resigned to this life of misery.” You get to complain without taking any definitive action.

This saves you from actually changing. It takes courage to change.

It saves you from actually doing the work that changing would require you to do. It takes persistence and resilience and dedication and discipline to do the work.

As Jean Paul-Sartre said, “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.” In other words, to own your freedom is to own your responsibility. And nobody wants to admit to that they are completely responsible for the state of their life.

B: Ok. So you’re saying that I use the claim that I am not free as an excuse… As a sort of hall pass so that I don’t actually have to do what would be required of me were I really interested in changing…

P: Right. It is likely the case that you’re actually more interested in finding evidence of your supposed lack of freedom than in finding evidence of your freedom. You prefer lack of freedom to freedom. Your claim, “I am not free and I wish I was,” might actually be the goal, “I do not want to be free and I will find evidence that this is the case.” For, if you were free, you would have to take on the responsibility of your own life and give up the project of finding other people or sources to point the finger at.

It takes courage to recognize the freedom that you already have.

In the words of Voltaire, “Man is free at the moment he wishes to be.” This could only be the case because he is fundamentally already free, but then he goes out of his way to convince himself – to prove to himself – that he is not.

B: Ok. So it is easier to claim that I am not free and then find all the reasons that that is the case, in part because it relieves me of the burden of responsibility.

P: That’s right. Freedom is incredibly disturbing. It is easier to fight against something, or point our fingers elsewhere, than it is to experience the complete and total freedom offered by this very moment.

B: So, freedom is an internal experience… How does one go about cultivating it?

P: You mean: how does one go about experiencing what is already true. Again, the premise here is that one is already free, but going out of their way to make the claim that they are not.

B: Sure.

P: You make the decision to commit to engage in your life from the grounds of freedom.

You can say to yourself, “I give myself permission to feel completely free right now.” What happens? What thoughts do you have? What do you want to do with this freedom?

Furthermore, recognize that you have choice in all areas of your life. This, too, implies freedom. You can make a different choice at any moment.

Become increasingly aware of the ways in which you give up your locus of control – your power to determine your self-worth and state of mind – to outside circumstances.

As William Faulkner wrote, “We must be free not because we claim freedom, but because we practice it.” Freedom takes commitment. Discipline. Again, the alternative is always easier.

B: So how does one practice freedom?

P: By taking complete responsibility for their internal sense of self and well-being. By not pointing the finger outwards and claiming that some uncontrollable or unseen force is responsible for their well-being. This is what it means to engage with your life from the grounds of freedom.

It is the realization that you, and you alone, determine the narrative which you choose to impose upon yourself and the world. Nobody else chooses it for you. As such, you are always free to choose a different one.

You are responsible for you own particular view of yourself, and so you are responsible for changing it, if you would like to.

You can say right now: “I take complete responsibility for my own well-being.”

You can make the commitment to never gain claiming – and I mean this regardless of circumstance – that you are not free.

“I am completely free. Nobody else can determine my inner-worth. Nobody has power over my inner well-being. Only me. I make all the choices in my life. And I have a choice in all that I do.”

B: So you’re proposing that, ultimately, I am free and that I am only claiming not to be. And you propose that I do this for self-serving reasons – to have a good excuse for not creating the life I long for.

You propose that, regardless of circumstances, I am always, always have been, and always will be free.

P: That’s right. We are all living a life of severe limitations. We all long for things that we do not have. And many of us learn to live happily within those limitations and, as such, choose a doctrine of freedom. There are, of course, circumstances where the limitations are much more strict, much more rigid, wretched, horrific and physically enforced. Even then, one can retain their own spirit. The freedom to determine their internal worth. Their internal sense of self. Their internal well-being.

Like Jean-Paul Sartre said, “Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.”

It takes courage to live this way. It is always easier to find somebody else to point the finger at.

Freedom is at the root of our existence. In the words of Jiddu Krishnamurti, “Freedom is always at the beginning and not at the end.” In other words, no amount of struggle against external forces will lead to a genuine experience of freedom. In instances of oppression, the struggle is certainly a worthy one and one that we should all undertake. External equality is important. But when we dismantle systems of oppression from the grounds of, “I already feel free,” it is a fundamentally different undertaking. We do it for reasons of practicality. To improve the quality of our lives. We are already free, but life could be better. We don’t give our internal power over to anybody else.

Start here. Start now. Adopt the doctrine of freedom and see where your life goes.

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