What is freedom?
What does freedom look like to you? Should we all seek to have the same concept of human freedoms or are they always going to be culturally-relative? Perhaps there are different levels of freedom, all equally valid yet some more fundamental to the entire human race than others?
Freedom takes many forms
For as I talk about ‘freedom lifestyle’ (such as the ability to travel when and where you want, to educate your children as you please, to trust that you will always have enough financial and material resources to get by, to engage in mutual relationships with whomever you choose, to simplify your routines that you may do more of what you love, and to construct whatever personal image you desire), I am also aware that the idea of freedom takes on a much different form for many people of the world.
The ‘freedom lifestyle’ I so enjoy discussing is a prime example of the privilege of WEIRD societies (that is, Western, educatied, industrialised, rich, democratic societies – but certainly quite weird too). It is painful and sickening to see the injustices against human rights taking place on a daily basis across the globe – yet rather than be wholly ashamed at our unconsciously colonial concept of freedom and personal autonomy, I wish that others had the opportunities that I have had for self-actualisation. This is not about throwing the baby out with the bath water.
Speaking from this place of privilege, I can see how strongly our concept of freedom is interlinked with the individualist ideology of neoliberalism. Whilst having such personal autonomy is a huge luxury, it can also be a curse – for in seeking this autonomy, we inevitably disconnect in some way from the community, the collective, ending up in our own little bubbles in which the freedom to seek personal gratification detaches us from the needs of the ‘tribe’.
This is one of the cons that many full-time worldschooling families find – enjoying independence yet yearning for deep human connections. Whilst the culture of the internet is quickly creating ‘global communities’, I wonder at how much strength and integrity these actually have in the rootless, fluctuating nature of them (and I’m referring to those communities that actually end up having physical meetings, not just online communications). Or is this just an extension of the idea of being free to choose our friends if not our family – choosing where we go to if not where we come from, yet never quite sure how strong the new bonds are until something tests them?
While I can thus tar the love of travel as weakening social bonds even as we develop cross-border friendship, the versatility and survival mechanisms of humans that have resulted in the anthropocene are what drive us to seek to explore new terrain just as much as we seek to set down roots.
It seems freedom is a spectrum – whilst I write about our adventures as a family that enjoys to travel, I also write about the basic universal freedoms that human beings should have, but are kept from through apartheid and denying freedom of speech.
But does ultimate personal freedom come at an expense, discarding the very values that have bound human beings together in kinship through the ages?
Freedom is choice
Of course, not everyone can choose freedom – let this not play down the struggles of those who are oppressed, wrongly incarcerated, or living with war. And the spiritual freedom which often gets people through such trials needs another post entirely (in the meantime, read Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning as an example of the spiritual resilience of survival). Yet you know you have freedom when you have choices – when your life isn’t mapped out ahead of you just because of where you were born or who you were born to, when you know you can choose to stay or go, when you know if you don’t like something you can change it.
We should be so grateful for all the freedoms we have in a society such as ours – to not take them for granted and neither to eschew them (I absolutely believe you should take advantage of any new opportunities that life offers you, even if it does make you more self-conscious about your privileged status in the world – perhaps a necessary realisation to make to truly appreciate our rich lives and respect the lives of those born without the same status?).
However, our freedom to make such choices puts us under other psychological pressures. What if you make the wrong decision? What if you regret the choice you made? What if your choice as an individual has repercussions for the lives of others? What if? What if?
It seems that the more personal freedom we have, the less we rely (or are able to rely) on interpersonal relationships to guide us – that we are free precisely because nobody else necessarily relies on us in a physical manner, that we may not rely on anybody else to provide for us, and that no other can make our decisions for us. Yes, often our choices will seem conflicting and indecision will loom precisely because we are weighing up what the best thing is for our families and other loved ones, and others’ opinions certainly abound, but ultimately we make the final decisions – and then individually shoulder all the blame when things go wrong or take all the praise when they work out.
Yet in a society where you have less choices available and therefore less decisions to make, you also have less stress relating to indecision and whether or not you are really “following your heart”. We are indeed blessed by having so much say over the direction of our lives – and then cursed when the analysis paralysis kicks in! The social conformity of collectivistic culture is not necessarily a bad thing, especially for those who recognise the beauty of the simple life.
What we sometimes forget is that, much like we limit choices for a child so as to not overwhelm them, we are also free to limit our own choices. Just because an option is available doesn’t mean it has to end up on your plate. In a culture of sensory overload and information overload, it becomes all the more important to engage in activities that simplify and streamline our lives. It can seem like an uphill battle at times but, as counter-intuitive as it seems to those who have grown up under rampant consumerism, minimalism is a lifestyle that invites in many freedoms. Less really is more.
We are sold the same options when it comes to embarking on relationships – I’ve come to see this freedom as inherently tainted with fear, because we’re all just one out of “plenty of fish” that could be discarded as “too this” or “too that” barely seconds after being caught. All the tears shed and days wasted trying to decide whether to leave a relationship or “is this really an expression of love?” – only to find myself in my mid-30s and a single parent to 4 children with the grand realisation that love isn’t a feeling, it’s a choice. It’s a state of being.
Yet the wrong relationships can significantly limit our freedom, and there may be occasion to choose personal independence above the desire for relationship. Despite this, freedom should always have a synonym in love, and freedom does not have to be at odds with commitment. Human mothers are not supposed to raise children in solitude, and this is one reason why social contracts of wedlock exist. While they may have different social issues to address, I can understand why so many cultures remain stable through the practice of arranged marriages. Unfortunately, individualistic independence and relationships of codependence seem more prevalent than freedom-granting relationships of interdependence.
Freedom is love
If love is freedom, freedom is love. I believe that those who truly love are not afraid of others’ freedom.
I believe freedom is always fought for from a place of love – that I will campaign against the oppression of strangers in other countries because I actually love the human race, for all the misdeeds we commit and quirks we have.
I believe that anyone who seeks to oppress others – restricting the freedoms of other human beings due to their ethnicity, religion, class, or any other socially-constructed label we use – is an agent of fear who is deprived of love and seeking to deprive others in turn.
I believe that freedom is the state you find yourself in when your first port of call in each moment is to tune into the love that resides within yourself (it’s never really about what other people are doing). Wherever you find yourself – as a willing hermit, in an unhappy marriage, or alongside your soulmate – true love within yourself creates spiritual freedom, and this is such pure freedom as it does not depend on any other human’s approval or affirmation.
Unfortunately, human love may come up against policies that restrict freedom, something that has become more of a headline story since EU nationals have started feeling the effects of anti-immigrant sentiment in the UK.
I also believe that freedom is the ultimate test for any human relationship – that as soon as we cling to another person or rely on them or their actions for our happiness, we are living in a state that is not actually conducive with real love. Relationships grow because they have room to grow. Only when we can give one another this space and still find one another on the other side are we ready to commit in confidence. Because if love is the basis of your relationship and if love is freedom, then so too should your relationship be one of freedom.
Freedom is not opposed to commitment
Of course not, for I am committed to freedom!
So, I have learnt that I deeply respect those who find comfort in marriage and in making the choice each and every day to work alongside another person, finding their mutual balance between freedom and security.
I used to be something of a commitment-phobe – this doesn’t just apply to intimate relationships, but to ideas, interests, plans, and places. I’ve only been in my current hometown for the length of time I have by taking one day at a time and interspersing the past 14 years with lots of travelling, lots of visitors, and lots of daydreaming about emigrating – if someone had told me when I first moved to Weymouth that I would still be here over 14 years later, I would have laughed!
It’s not in my nature to settle – and certainly not for less than I deserve. We need the freedom to discern when we should persevere and when we should let go.
At the beginning of 2017 I finally put a full stop on an abusive relationship (one of our freedoms – indeed, rights – must be the power to walk away from dysfunctional relationships). I then focused on all the things that would make me feel ‘free’ – paying off debt, enroling on business and psychology courses, reconnecting with old friends, making new friends, pursuing minimalism, having live-in helpers through Workaway, and chasing our worldschooling dreams.
The freedom to step back and take refuge from a bad situation is necessary in order to remember your light – in the midst of something, you cannot see the woods for the trees. The combination of utilising my power to walk away and recognising the dynamics that had been at play was a huge lesson about freedom and choice. Only by having the freedom to get out of a negative situation, find myself in a contrasting situation, and therefore take on a new perspective did I realise what I actually wanted to commit to.
I found myself committing to a path with my self-development that I am still walking over 3 years later.
I found myself making a significant financial investment into something that I would have to follow through to make it worth the cost.
I found myself gaining comfort in routines and schedules, and putting procrastination into the past due to a commitment to just getting things done as they needed doing.
When you’re not fully committed, you do things by halves. A person or an employer or a project will never get the absolute best of you when half of your heart is elsewhere – and neither will you necessarily see the best of yourself (even if you know your ‘true potential’ – knowing what could be is no substitute for acting upon it).
Hence, I recognised it was my commitment to freedom at all costs that prevented me from making the most of what the previous few years had offered me – that stopped me from learning my children’s Imazighen family’s first language (“What’s the point if my future isn’t here?”), that took goal-setting as a contract against freedom (“But if I commit to this I won’t be free to discover what other paths could have been!”). Options are freedom but inaction is a cage made of fear.
Freedom is emotional freedom
When I’m happy and full of energy, everybody knows about it – I’m sharing my new ideas, connecting with friends to arrange meet-ups, being generous with my time, and possibly recounting not-so-happy moments because of the spiritual and psychological revelations that have dawned on me through them (yes, I’m happy today!).
When I’m not-so-happy, I hide away until the storm has passed, making sure no-one ever takes pity on me or sees me tearful. Much of 2017-2018 was spent in this state as I slowly recovered my sense of self and dealt with another unexpected pregnancy that coinciding with moving into a brand new chapter.
I have lost count of the number of times in my life when I’ve bluntly been told to stop crying because the person I’m with can’t handle my emotions. Too many of us have been taught to lock our feelings away, restraining ourselves lest we make another person feel uncomfortable. However, I know that it takes great strength to be vulnerable, and that we will never be free for as long as we keep things bottled up inside – prisoners of our own making.
I sincerely tell my friends to see me as a shoulder to cry on and to never go it alone if they don’t have to (I have often found this offer taken up, touched by the trust shown in me in being the person they open up to) – yet do I take my own advice?
Part of my reticence to discuss big emotions as they happen is that I also believe we can choose how far to head into our emotional responses – we should never deny or repress our emotions, but neither should we feed them or be governed by them. We should be mindful when they arise (“Oh, hello anger!”), but do we need to act on them and allow them to consume us? No. No, we really do not need to announce things to our entire Facebook friends list each time something remotely shitty happens – let it go. Meditate instead.
There is a great freedom to be had by not feeding the negative thought-forms and nurturing the positive instead. I’m not naïve about the pitfalls and oversights of positive psychology – not if it buries things that need expressing or expects individuals to put on a brave face when they genuinely need the support of a fellow human. Yet if we approached our mental health like our physical health, we’d maybe be more conscious of what we put into our minds (and the minds of others) and the control we actually have – and enjoy the freedom that is found through regaining that control.
So while we should feel free to be open-hearted when things are difficult we should also endeavour to reclaim our power from negative emotions – it is so liberating to realise that changing how you feel is often just about changing the way you think about something.
This is about all the big emotions, whether we label them good or bad. Don’t be afraid to show that you’re hurting. But also don’t be afraid to tell someone you love them, that they light up your life, that your day has been made thanks to their very presence. True emotional freedom does not fear rejection because it is all about the expression, not the outcome.
Freedom is cultural
Do not think you understand the full concept of freedom coming solely from your own cultural perspective. This point is well-illustrated by the somewhat simplistic but thought-provoking image of a bikini-clad woman and a woman in Islamic hijab, both pitying the other for what patriarchy has done to them.
Both they and every opinion in between come from different cultural perspectives. Certainly some people will be wearing what they do because they are expected to, whilst others have made a conscious decision through their own free-will (or think they have; the concepts of free will and subjectivity have less to do with personal autonomy than we tend to assume). Deciding that one style of dress is about freedom and another about oppression is not helpful in unravelling what’s at play – looking at the bigger picture, you’d start questioning uniforms of any kind.
Depending on the inherent values in your culture of upbringing, you will have different notions of what freedom entails and whether it is more or less important in the grand scheme of things.
As an educated woman, I often find myself feeling conflicted by the imperialistic push to grant a Western-style education to underprivileged women in developing countries. We should only go into such endeavours with a full understanding of the impact it has on the societies as a whole – an easy oversight to make if you go into it believing your own cultural background is the ‘right’ one.
This is where the individual and the collective comes into play. How much should we put individual self-actualisation on hold for the good of the collective? When are we actually just sacrificing traditions that bind communities on the altar of the West’s latest social paradigm? When is what we think is good (education) actually bad (indoctrinisation)? As usual, balance should be the operative word here.
I write this considering the impact of state education in Morocco on the country’s indigenous heritage – as soon as you encourage the indigenous Imazighen women to become Arabised by the state education system, you encourage them to leave behind their culture. And with that comes the death of indigenous languages and a further move towards cultural hegemony – and I tend to feel that reduced diversity in a country ultimately leads to reduced freedom of expression, one of those freedoms we are so quick to defend.
These women may not have financial or academic capital, but they have huge cultural capital – as with most women’s issues, where their power lies is also what society will try to undermine and distort. To truly honour and emancipate them would be to enable them to gain literacy in their own language first and foremost.
We can see in our own society how the ’emancipation’ of women is turning in on itself, leading to less freedom of choice – honouring those who try to be everything (wife, mother, career woman, fun-loving friend, and preferably on the PTA too) and undermining those who believe that their 24/7 role as a mother, homemaker, and wife is quite enough (and not just enough, but exactly where they feel their purpose lies). If emancipation means freedom, it should always be about the freedom to choose. This also goes for bikinis, burqas, and anything in between.
Also, I have learnt that when your Muslim partner wants to accompany you on all your outings, it is not because of a lack of trust in you or with the intention of limiting your freedom – it is a matter of honour, of being seen as a protector and provider, to be there for you if anything goes wrong or anyone tries to hassle you. Forgive me for using an analogy of a child in this case (quite enough infantilising of women occurs), but I shall relate it to being the relaxed parent in a park full of helicopter parents – as soon as your child falls off something because you were 3 metres away letting them get on with it rather than right under them waiting for them to fall, you’re going to be seen as the one in the wrong. Likewise, a shame-based culture, such as those in the Middle East and Asia, will try to limit problems by not letting them happen in the first place. I’m not saying I like this (although it was often reassuring) or think it’s right (I am that relaxed parent) but so could someone question a guilt-based culture, which places a higher value on autonomy yet in which it is increasingly difficult to feel a sense of shared social values.
Talk about culture clash. However, it has helped me to understand how stressful mixed-heritage relationships are upon people, quite apart from the usual pressures of relationships. And that whilst we may have the freedom to travel and to pursue a relationship with someone living in another continent, that very freedom brings the sharp contrast of shortcomings in social capital to the partner who has a less privileged passport.
Our freedom should be used to understand and enhance the lives of those around us rather than be solely about personal autonomy. Rob Greenfield is an example of someone who possibly lives the ultimate freedom lifestyle, using his lack of attachment to money, property, and possessions to serve people and the planet.
Though I warned against our attempts to ‘fix’ developing nations and am also sceptical of certain forms of voluntourism, there are always ways in which we can use our freedoms to benefit others – whether our financial freedom allows us to help those less well-off, our emotional freedom allows us to support those going through dark days, or our physical freedom allows us to assist those who are dependent on others to care for them.
Whilst we can be conscious of our privilege in ‘free’ nations (I use that term tentatively in regards to the lack of psychologically freedom of those bound by consumerism and the false narratives of mainstream media), are we conscious of how our background influences the way we think about freedom? And what do we miss out on if we put freedom on a pedestal above other aspects of a well-rounded life, such as community and security?
Our pick ‘n’ mix personal freedom replaces solid communities with disparate networks – it does not make meaningful human contact impossible, but it makes it more difficult. Networks facilitate connections – but it is community that supports those connections.
Over recent weeks I’ve been given a reminder of how selfish Western individualism is. And how isolating. And how my “Woohoo, freedom lifestyle!” smile hides the reality of suffering from strong, independent woman syndrome. I found myself nodding in recognition upon reading an article about how individualism results in social isolation and another about how mothers suffer with the lack of genuine community.
Yet herein is the dichotomy and a reminder that we cannot have our cake and eat it too. Spiritually and emotionally we may be as free as our thoughts allow, yet physically we are bound by more than we care to admit, always subject to the laws, traditions, and social code of wherever we find ourselves – and always somewhat drawn to conform and fit in. But that very desire to fit in and create shared values is what binds us to others and fosters the solidarity of community.
Conscious freedom not only means recognising our place amongst others in the world as a whole but also recognising if we are remaining centred in ourselves in a mindful way that seeks connection with other people or in an egoic way that ends up isolating us from other people.
Freedom is planning
In my new-found security of sticking to my plans and projects, I’ve been starkly aware of times when I’ve let go just before achieving a goal, or dishonoured myself by refusing to make a commitment. The freedom to change is responsible for many an incomplete project, meaning I have few finished products to be proud of despite being a self-confessed ‘idea machine‘.
The freedom of not planning too much too far in advance becomes a ball and chain when we notice that the years have gone by and there is so much we could have achieved if we had our eye on the long-term goal rather than pursuing the freedom of total spontaneity. That pursuit can cost your dreams, which you shall receive a rude reminder of when the ultimate freedom of death comes knocking.
To achieve our true potential we must sometimes shelter what we have sown when the winds of change blow rather than taking to our wings and abandoning our seedlings to the storm. The grass can never be greener if we do not stay to watch it grow.
So, I resolve to integrate these lessons – to move into tomorrow appreciating how much choice and variety my freedom affords me whilst being mindful of the decisions I then make. To know that the privilege of freedom should not be taken for granted and squandered, but used to promise ourselves to the greater good. To focus on choosing commitment when it is called for and choosing love in all situations.
This has just skimmed the surface of the various layers of freedom and how it can be conceptualised – do let me know in the comments below what resonated for you, and which aspects you may like to explore more.