Wednesday, September 22, 2010

How do you know when you are acting freely?

I've been thinking lately about what defines a free act. Societal definitions do not seem to help. As a child, I was told that "with freedom, comes responsibility". This implied to me that free acts were often paired with negative consequences. As we grow up, our freedoms are granted to us only if we act responsibly and prove to our parents, our schools, our society in general that we have earned it. As I've grown up, I've realized how strange this sense of societal freedom really is.

After all, it's not actually the case that the more responsibly we act the more freedom we gain in society. Instead, it is those who exploit the most and take responsibility for the least (i.e. huge corporations) that have the most freedom, as measured by monetary power, to enact their desires upon the world. In a recent study cited by Timothy Noah in his excellent Slate series "The United States of Inequality", USA, along with Italy and Great Britain, have become one of the least upwardly mobile rich countries in the world. It seems that we are increasingly granted the 'freedom' to live up to the expectations that are set up for us simply by where and under what financial circumstances we were born into. Any hopes to deviate from this given 'freedom' becomes tied to the able-ness of our bodies, the sharpness of our minds, the beauty of our faces, and still, somehow, courageously, the will of our souls.

Yes. Despite the ever-increasing infringements upon individual will and desire, the constant and relentless bombardment of advertisements convincing us of what we want, the barrage of 'news' media that perpetuates stereotypes and incites fear, despite the wave of brain scientists and psychologists that attempt to explain and predict as many of our behaviors as they can, our childhoods where we are taught to conform or be punished, and the psychiatric drugs that encourage us to not investigate our feelings of depression and loneliness---almost everyone I have ever encountered still firmly believes that they have free will. That, on some level, they are in charge of the decisions they make and the directions they go. That they cannot be predicted.

It's very difficult to identify something that almost every individual agrees upon. That's why I'm so curious to find a path to freedom, to know when I am acting freely, and to chase after those experiences. So where to begin. In a way the answer comes easily: When am I free? When I'm doing what I want to do. When I am doing whatever I want.

Again, this definition was like a dead end. Who is this unified I? How will I know her when I see her, when I hear her? So much of my consciousness is a continuing conversation, a voice from the observer, voices of girls I used to be, girls I think I should be, voices I know to be damaging, hurtful, or wasteful. Which one is I? Which one knows what I want?

Perhaps this struggle is not familiar to many, I know for a long time I was mostly unaware of it. As the dreamwork continues to awaken me to the feelings I work so hard to repress, though, I come to see that it wasn't that I knew what I wanted, but rather that I knew how I wanted seem. That I was making my decisions based on the part of me that thinks, that observes and reacts, not the aspect of myself that feels, that perceives and creates.

So if knowing what you want is confusing, how do you know if you are acting freely? I'm temped to respond that one knows they are free because they feel it. Of course this is vague, and confusing. There are plenty of things I do because they make me 'feel' good, things that I do because I feel 'free' to do so--vegging out in front of the tv, eating too much, drinking too much, sleeping in, buying gossip magazines, blowing off friends, spending money I don't have, skipping activities I know I'll enjoy-- and yet they always seems to result in the opposite emotion, a feeling that I am stuck in a monotonous life, unable to make any real positive changes. It is only after I do the things that took effort to accomplish--making a new friend, going for a bike ride, learning about a topic I didn't know about before, trying new activities, pushing myself in my work, writing, reading--that I begin to feel that kind of elation that one can only recognize as freedom---a lifting of the veil, hints to the areas of needed growth, the chance to become something you were not before.

So I've come to a suggestion. It's only a small change from my childhood definition. Instead of thinking of responsibility a tiresome after effect of freedom, I think freedom should be an effect of taking responsibility. It is the act of taking responsibility itself that sets you free. It frees you from the oppression of others making decisions for you, and ensures that you are mindful of the ways that you are oppressing others (both relationships being a type of enslavement). Being responsible and educating yourself about what you consume will free you from crimes of corporate america. Taking responsibility for your own happiness will motivate you to make the difficult changes that are often necessary for positive growth. Taking responsibility for your actions, your every action, will require the patience and thoughtful consideration that is necessary for you to begin to really see all the possibilities and open you to ways of thinking you had not considered before.

Freedom is such a complicated term, there are certainly many of its aspects that aren't encompassed by my definition here. But I do think it's a very workable personal definition, a way of steering the boat. How can I take more responsibility in my life? What effects am I having that I am ignoring? What parts of myself do I blame on others? How can I feel free?