Thursday, January 09, 2020

Freedom . . . Whatever That Means

Baby, everybody has to fight to be free. ~Tom Petty

We talk a lot about freedom. Everybody wants it for themselves, for their children, for their fellow citizens. We want it for oppressed people around the world. But what does it mean to be free?

It's the nature of freedom to mean different things to different people. I certainly know that my ideas of freedom are starkly different than those with whom I argue politics. Indeed, in many ways, their notions of freedom are my notions of tyranny, and, I've come to understand, vice versa. And no one is ever truly, fully, entirely "free" if the definition is to do what you want, when you want. There is always something that stands between us and that kind of perfect freedom.

Last week, I mentioned the French philosopher Michel Foucault who asserts that our souls are always controlled in some way by societal expectations and standards. It's true, of course. Societal expectations and standards cause me to wait in queues, drive on the proper side of the road, and avoid belting out show tunes on a city bus. I might not want to wait, it might be faster for me to dodge across roadway lines, I might be full of the inspiration of Annie, but because I live with other humans, I engage in certain behaviors, or refrain from others, which is an impingement upon my freedom to do what I want, when I want. That said, most of us accept these kinds of limitations to our freedom. Indeed, not only to we accept them, but play a role in enforcing them, even if it is just with our disapproving glares or covered ears (and believe me, you would cover your ears were I to opt to belt out Tomorrow in an enclosed space). I don't specifically recall learning any of this, but it's there, solidly, a piece of who I am with other people. We internalize different restrictions on our absolute freedom based upon our families, our neighborhoods, and our cultures.

These are among the first lessons children learn. Where are the boundaries? How far can I go? And it is the role of adults to help them figure it out. They can't play in the street. They can't hit or bite or kick their fellow humans. There are limitations we must teach them, gently, confidently, and by role modeling them ourselves. And as we know, they will resist, often going to extremes to assert their freedom to do what they want, when they want. It's a mistake when adults treat this like misbehavior: it's a natural human response to having one's freedom restricted. We are born to rebel against being told what we cannot do. It feels as if we are being imprisoned by these arbitrary expectations and standards and we fight them until we've come to understand them, which can be a long process, especially if the expectations and standards are truly arbitrary such as the one that prevents us, even those with good voices, from singing on a public bus. They need our loving guidance, not our punishments and threats, to help them through this very difficult process of voluntarily sacrificing some piece of their freedom for the sake of their fellow humans.

It's a balance beam that every one of us walks as we go about our lives as "free" humans. Every single day, I'm confronted with an expectation or standard or outright restriction that I experience as an impingement upon my freedom. I want to be free. I will fight for it. I hope all of us feel this way, especially the children I teach. And despite knowing that my freedom will never be "complete," I still find myself fighting, every day, to be free . . . whatever that means.

I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch;  
He said to me, "You must not ask for so much."
And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door;
She cried to me, "Hey, why not ask for more?"
Oh, like a bird on a wire,
Like a drunk in a midnight choir,
I have tried in my way to be free.
                                                    ~Leonard Cohen

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