A hot summer day … A celebration with a picnic and fireworks … A lazy day at the beach … Visiting relatives or friends … Flags and national pride … These are images and symbols of American freedom evoked by our 4th of July holiday.
What Does Freedom Mean to You?
We each have our own personal images, traditions and beliefs we attach to concepts like this, that interweave the personal, societal and national into one of our “great” principles -- freedom, justice, truth, honor, and so on.
For too many, literal freedom isn’t a reality. Even in our modern day, constraints and oppression are heavy and incessant. For many of us though, we bar ourselves from enjoying our world freely, with joy.
So, what does freedom mean to you? Is it freedom from a job -- getting to take a break or a vacation? Is it freedom from financial worries? Freedom from the demands of others? Freedom from anxiety? Freedom of choice? Freedom to express oneself? Freedom from obligations or commitments? Freedom to do what you want? Freedom from a destructive cycle?
What, then, does that look like in real life?
Sometimes we end up doing things for ourselves that feel good or seem right, but that don’t really work. We may try being more assertive or more proactive, but find ourselves feeling combative without really accomplishing what we were going for. Or opening up a bigger can of worms than we bargained for.
Is freedom a thrill? Ecstasy? Is it escape? There’s nothing wrong with escape when applied judiciously (like anything else), and that can be an excellent endeavor -- for an afternoon, a vacation, a break. But we can’t live in a perpetual state of escape. At some point, we’re trying to escape from ourselves and our own lives, and that’s just an endless task. There’s no “there” to get to. I’m skeptical that wre can live in a constant state of ecstasy either or peak thrill, etc.
Freedom for Me Revolved Around Alcohol
When I think about freedom and what it means to me, I identify it so closely with my freedom from alcohol. I have had a lot of things happen that limited my freedom in various ways, but the most over-powering and largest of those is, no doubt, my use of alcohol and drugs and the way I let it overtake my life some years back.
It is such an ironic thing because I started using, as a teenager, partly as rebellion and as a desire to assert myself as my own person. As I started to feel more like I didn’t fit at home, or among my peers, in high school, I found a home among the other kids who had “issues” and drank and got high. I felt accepted and safe there.
My first ideas of freedom were pretty fraught with drama and chaos in breaking free from my parents. And I thought drugs and drinking (and boys) were the keys to that freedom.
I spent my young adulthood trying to prove that my party lifestyle was better. I believed it. I was not stuck in a narrow little rut like my parents. I knew how to have fun and enjoy life, and I could handle it and work and have relationships and all of that, too. I believed this 100%. It mostly looked like that -- sort of -- for a long, long while.
Now, looking back, that carefree path was littered with a lot of discarded, trampled relationships, stupid arguments and fights, unbelievable amounts of money squandered, jobs lost or discarded, reckless disregard for others (and myself) and too many scary and dangerous situations to count.
So for me, real freedom started when I freed myself from alcohol and drug abuse.
Freedom from Being Ruled by Emotion
Once I took off my boozy dark glasses, that gave me freedom from being run ragged by distorted emotions and reacting to the world through those lenses. I thought I was being righteous and standing up for myself. I realize now, that I was absolutely beholden to random drunken emotion with absolutely no sense of proportion or consequence. I would create fights and arguments, scream and yell over imagined slights. I felt everyone should hear about whatever random things I might be thinking about when I was drunk.
I thought those were my true emotions, trying to pour out of me, and that alcohol gave me the courage to express them. Maybe some part of that is valid. I really was angry at various people. I really was frustrated and lonely. But all of that was skewed and illogical when drinking, and it helped me create and fuel a lifestyle of swirling chaos and drama.
This is probably the area in which there’s been the biggest change for me over time. Not that I’m emotionless now. Not by any means. Surprisingly, getting sober gave me back my emotions. But I’m learning to distinguish and experience emotion in ways that don’t hurt me or others in the world around me.
Genuine emotions arise naturally as we encounter things in the world that are anger-inducing, scary, worrying, sad, or happy. But I realize that those don’t have to swell into overblown, exaggerated emotions like rage, terror, panic, despair and ecstasy.
My emotions can be greatly affected by the way I think. If I can train myself to think clearly, I can learn to look at a situation logically and respond in ways that make sense. I can process what to do, rather than go with pure reaction. It’s something I can work at. I may not be able to change the emotion, but I can exaggerate it or lessen it, and those two paths go to entirely different places.
We all react to things. We have instincts that push us to react and to react quickly. Sometimes our instincts cue larger reactions than are necessary.
For example, If someone calls me a name, I don’t HAVE to punch them in the nose. It may feel like it, but it’s not true that I HAVE to. It’s not a law. Even if it’s an unwritten law in my house or culture, I can still do it differently if I want to. If I decide to. I can take a second to figure out what will serve me best in a given situation.
Importantly, we can all learn to recognize a dicey situation as it’s happening, become aware of what’s going on, including our own emotional reactions, and pause long enough to choose a response that weighs the satisfaction of giving into emotion against the damage it will do longer-term.
What is Freedom More Broadly?
Freedom to do whatever we want? Well that sure sounds like the ticket. Except, that as above, we can struggle with what is good for us in many dimensions.
In addition, humans don’t seem to be designed to live in isolation. So we have to take into account, to some degree, how our actions will affect those around us.
Cooperation and collaboration help us achieve more than we can individually and help keep us safe. It makes sense that if we want others to take us into consideration as they go about their lives, that we will have to do the same, and to compromise at times if those two come into conflict.
Further, because we have reasons to interact -- business transactions, crossing paths, etc., we, as a society, make some simple rules that everyone agrees to -- ideally. Obviously, this process of defining what is and isn’t acceptable in society is constant and ongoing, often flying off towards extremes rather than seeking middle ground. We seem to become polarized easily, especially when we’re scared and uncertain.
So what happens when we drink or use as much as we want. We CAN, of course. But SHOULD we? Do we really want to? Does it help us in our worlds? Is it possible we think that’s what we want when maybe it isn’t giving us much back?
Maybe the very things that taste like freedom are preventing us from actually enjoying real freedom. Or provoking consequences that in turn further restrict our freedom -- health issues, legal issues, lost hours.
What are some other freedoms we may not be taking into consideration?
The freedom to wake up to a sparkling new day without regret? Freedom of clear eyes to from which to view the world. Freedom to drive without worry. Freedom to see or talk to anyone without fearing that they’re judging you? Freedom in feeling healthy and fit? The freedom of moving through the world confidently, without shame or embarrassment? The freedom to enjoy all the activities and sights and sounds and smells of the world around us? The freedom of energy and interest and action?
These have become more precious to me.
On this holiday, July 4, 2021, I hope you can savor and enjoy all of your freedoms.