FREEDOMby Rosa Laura Junco
Freedom. We all say we want it. Yet, what exactly is it? And what does it entail? Is freedom a completely positive concept that comes without a price?
There have been innumerable wars fought over freedom, scores of lives lost in its name, plenty of songs that proclaim its greatness, and many lifetimes dedicated to its pursuit.
This is a hard subject to write about, as there are many different angles and layers to examine. Countless philosophers, theologists and psychologists have made it their life’s work to study it. And all of us struggle and strive on a daily basis in the name of experiencing freedom. Every practical decision we make alludes to its existence and importance. So, let’s explore certain aspects of it. A common definition:
Freedom is “The power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint.”
As simple as it might seem to define freedom, it starts to get murky when we test the limits of the definition:
What do we mean by “power to act”? If I can act in any way, does it mean I have power?
What do we consider a “hindrance or restraint” that encroaches upon freedom?
Is there ever a time when there are no restraints? When do these restraints affect our freedom?
It’s not so black and white, right? Let’s explore the questions above considering the following situation:
You are about to go through security at an airport. You’re herded through multiple lines and checkpoints, partly undressed, separated from your stuff, and you’ve passed through all sorts of hoops. Oops! Your carry-on bag has prohibited items. The agents take them away. You choose to comply with all the constraints and finally they give you access to the gates.
So, were you free? Did you have the “power to act”? Was it without restraint or hindrance? Was your freedom affected? And – was this bad?
There seem to be certain restraints that we view as acceptable, and not as a threat to our freedom. Yet, the line may be blurry and subjective. Certain people may experience airport security as a threat to their privacy and freedom, while others experience it as a necessary step they will gladly comply with to ensure “safety.” (Whether airport security contributes to a “safer” world is a topic we will leave for future exploration.) The point, however, is the experience of freedom or the lack thereof is subjective. For example, my experience of freedom could be completely different in comparison to someone else’s. Not only is it different from person to person, but it’s also inconsistent within each person—people often feel more or less free depending on how much they are invested in having something they want.
So then, is freedom just an internal state of mind that’s arbitrarily affected by external circumstances? Consider Viktor Frankl’s findings that are beautifully narrated in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl was an Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor who describes how in the most inhumane and darkest of situations (as a prisoner in a concentration camp), he found the ultimate experience of freedom and fulfillment.
Of course, we strive to live in a world where the horrors of the Holocaust are never experienced. We want to nurture a society that allows people to strive and create many options for themselves. Yet, even though we live in a world where there are far more external possibilities than ever before, particularly in developed countries such as the U.S., many of us experience a lack of freedom — and there’s far less adversity than in a concentration camp.
Maybe true freedom lies in understanding that we are always at choice. We choose our every decision: our actions, thoughts and words. We also choose how we experience each of those choices. This means that I can decide to be miserable at airport security, or I could be amazed at the technology that allows for it. I may agree or disagree with airport security, yet I can still choose to experience it in whichever way I want – or even decide not to travel. And this type of choice can be extrapolated to any area: I can decide to do my work in a state of enjoyment or in a state of utter boredom and obligation. I can decide to enjoy the people around me or focus on their every fault.
Ultimately, every moment allows for choice. Our human condition inherently has “restrictions and hindrances” – this is part of the nature of being alive, and also part of living in a social setting. Yet, these constraints are not indicative of lessened freedom, for the “power to act” is always present — every moment of life is a choice. As adverse as any situation might be, it’s an opportunity to decide how we wish to deal with it, and this is where true freedom lies.
There is much to learn from Viktor Frankl’s personal journey. He wisely recommended that the Statue of Liberty in New York be complemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast. He stated, “Freedom, however, is not the last word. Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness.”
It may well be that to experience true freedom, the price to pay is an acknowledgement of the responsibility of choice in every moment. As long as we recognize this as the ultimate truth, we have the power to create our life experience as we see fit, and collectively, create the type of world we want to inhabit.
Maybe freedom is overrated in our time and age, too idealized a concept. Maybe we should focus more on responsibility. It may very well be the key – and the shortest path – to a free world.
--Rosa Laura Junco
This text was inspired by a number of recent analyses Rosa Laura Junco has done with her team at The Knife Media. Many have included assumptions about the concept of freedom, in particular free speech.