Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Clouds Must Be Free


I like the idea of being "free," whatever that means, and I like the idea of empowering others to be free. It is, one could say, the driving force behind both my personal and professional life. I don't know if I've ever achieved it, but I've always, to the best of my ability strived toward it. 

I will not obey is one of my mantras, commandeered from Utah Phillips and made my own. It is, at the same time, the attitude of a dictator unless I also strive to also make the possibilities embodied in that stance a reality for others. "I'll be the boss of me. You be the boss of you." It's another mantra, one I've tried to live for most of my adult life, especially when engaged with young children. To me it means that my relationships must be based upon agreement rather than command. 

Of course, that is only the tip of the freedom iceberg. Even if we can achieve perfect interpersonal freedom, and we likely cannot, there are still the worldly shackles of society, culture, environment, biology, and wealth that make our freedom incomplete. Philosophers and theologians tell us that nothing short of death, the return of consciousness back into the universe or heaven, can make us free; that bodies are our ultimate earthly prisons. Others, however, tell us that freedom is possible on this earth, but only through a constant process of escape, of letting go, of being water. Even if this freedom is only experienced in sips, they say, it is real freedom nevertheless. 

The philosopher Karl Popper said that life is not a clock, it is a cloud. The mistake we make is to believe that if we can find the right tool to dissect it, we will finally figure it out, the way one would a clock. This is the approach we've taken since science has usurped mythology, yet time and again, whenever we think we are approaching an understanding of the universe, or the human mind, we find that the deterministic order turns out to be a mirage, a cloud that is, in Popper's words, "highly irregular, disorderly, and more or less unpredictable." 

Hopefully by now we've all heard the word that science has discovered that our brains, arguably the source of our minds, our consciousness, is, like a cloud, an ever-changing and evolving thing, never the same from moment to moment, always emerging as our neurons adapt to the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Neuroscientists have labelled this constant cellular upheaval as "plasticity," and it means that life is a dialectic between the self and the world. Not too long ago neuroscientists were telling us that we are born with a fixed set of neurons at birth, a clock, but now we see that we we have more in common with clouds.

This is where our freedom can be found -- in our mind's ability to continually renew itself. Each day, we are given new cortical cells and it is up to us to decide what we will become. That is freedom. The freedom to find what we want in the highly irregular, disorderly, and more or less unpredictable cloud and to chose from moment to moment who we will be.

We miseducate our children when we teach them to obey, when we show them that escape is impossible, when we confine them in classrooms (or, as we are doing now, in front of screens), when we limit their input to only that which we've detailed in curricula and their output to right answers only. This is, at best, a preparation for a non-existent clockwork universe, a neo-Calvinist place of predestination, where freedom is only an illusion. 

But life is not a clock, it's a cloud and clouds must be free.

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I'm excited to announce that Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in Australia and New Zealand as well as the US, Canada, the UK, Iceland, and Europe. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 

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