Monday, November 21, 2011

What do we Mean When we say “Freedom”?

Giobbi Photo, 2010.

As a child I can remember seeing a man on the television, I would later come to know him  as Jimmy Carter, talk of this word that I would repeatedly hear as the reason proclaimed for many actions. I came to wonder if we were all talking about the same thing when we spoke of freedom?

Somehow the words deliverance, salvation, and grace seemed to resonate with this idea of freedom. Eleven years before my birth (to the date) Martin Luther King Jr. declared his dream for freedom in a march on Washington. Listening to that speech, I began to understand just what people mean by those enigmatic words like deliverance.

Bondage, another word of Old English origin, refers to “anything that binds” –meaning sticks together. But the etymology of the word bond originally refers to both householder and husband. The Proto-Indo-European (known as PIE to linguists) origins of free is pri, which connotes to love. In fact, all of the etymological tracings of the word free, including the French and Latin equivalent liberty, eventually leads to the term love.

So, what is it that we mean when we utter the word freedom? What is this state that so many folks seek, the longing for deliverance, salvation, redemption, and grace? When you ask folks in the United States what they mean by freedom, they usually are talking about economic freedom. If you ask the rebel on the streets of some Middle Eastern state of the Arab Spring, they are speaking mostly of political freedom. The majority of folks, when asked about their idea of freedom, regardless of their geography, nationality, or ideology, will presume one of these two types of freedom in their response.

A third kind of freedom is personal freedom and is often what those in spirituality, philosophy, or psychotherapy are seeking. Personal freedom has been referred to as free will, autonomy, awakening, and enlightenment. It is this third category of freedom that might be what those who speak of deliverance, salvation, redemption, and grace are after. When asked what precisely it is they are looking for, these people tend to describe what seems more like a personal feeling or emotional state, than a right to act, as is central to political and economic freedom.

Political freedom and economic freedom are demonstrable, tangible, and physical. One can identify political or economic oppressors, oppressive systems, and oppressive policies and laws. Political and economic freedoms are the most visible and understandable to people. For the worker who scrapes together enough money to feed and shelter her family, economic freedom is easy to comprehend, and her oppressors seem right at hand. For the person marginalized for his physical features, or beliefs, political freedom is understandable and his oppressors seem easy to name. However, with personal freedom there is a difficulty that is not apparent (however present) in bothpolitical and economic freedom. The bully here is not so easy to identify and the effect of the oppression is often not understood in an expressible way. It is, rather,  felt as an emotion. Both political freedom and economic freedom are systematic and physical manifestations of the frustration of personal freedom.

Instead, the mechanism of personality, this thing we call the I or the me, is the very thing that we are simultaneously attempting to make free and be free from. This concept is difficult to penetrate, but is the quintessential link between all strivings for freedom as well as an answer to the curious search for transcendence, redemption, and salvation.

This intersection, where the restlessness for personal freedom finds its voice in the spiritual, political, economic, and the artistic, is simultaneously manifested in the personal relation with the self. In this way a person does not express themselves or their beliefs through an economic, political, religious, or philosophical ideology, nor do they adopt an ideological system to define themselves. Instead, the mechanism of personality, this thing we call the I or the me, is the very thing that we are simultaneously attempting to make free andbe free from. This concept is difficult to penetrate, but is the quintessential link between all strivings for freedom as well as an answer to the curious search for transcendence, redemption, and salvation.

There are a few words that appear when folks are asked to express their desire for redemption, deliverance, and forgiveness –e.g., personal freedom. Guilt and responsibility seem to be what most are seeking salvation from. In many religious systems, the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions in particular, the guilt and salvation are pre-established. One is guilty for being born and must submit to God in humble acknowledgement for the gift of being created. In other words, one is born into sin and can only be freed by God’s grace. Both transgression and transcendence are prearranged for the religious experience.

It seems to me that what the most adamant of the adherents  to these traditions are seeking is some kind of freedom from. I am not referring to everyone who is involved with religious practice, most of whom are involved nominally as a cultural or family tradition. I am not convinced that most feel guilty for their own existence. I do believe, however, that people with very real feelings of guilt and responsibility, over very real tragedies and experiences, find an outlet for those feelings in the religion’s system. It is not uncommon for people who have suffered through great abuses and traumas to feel a sense of responsibility for the event, especially when experienced as a child. The structure of the dogma of religion serves as a system of symbols that represent the multi-dimensional person themselves, offering a path towards transcendence and forgiveness through sublimation.

Personal freedom is not as conspicuous as political or economic freedom. What we find in the strivings for political and economic freedom are ideological systems that promise a state of freedom that is broadly defined as a freedom to. In political freedom we might find the freedom to speak or the freedom to vote. With economic freedom there is the promise that freedom to possess and to consume is being free. Whereas these two forms of freedom require some sort of doing, personal freedom seems to be some sort of freedom from, be that a memory, condition, or the very idea of I or me.

When those who seek freedom through the political or the economical achieve that system, it is not long until it is found that the state delivered is not exactly the freedom they were seeking. We see this in the massive occurrence of depression and lethargy in Communist states, and the anxious, manic-crazed need-to-consume in Capitalist systems. Each of these systems fails at the promise for economic freedom.

The promise of political freedom through a democracy or a republic, too soon becomes a façade that only those whom the system serves well, or those who do not look too closely, continue to believe in. What then, do we really mean by freedom?

Starting from the etymological origins of freedom, in both the Latin andPIE lineage, we arrived at love. As we saw, bondagebond, and binding all refer to a holding together into a whole. In the Old English, man became bound to his wife and home. This binding was experienced as freedom in that he was oriented towards the household or union. In this way, Freedom is not a right to act, a hesitation in doing, or autonomy from; rather, it is a feeling one gets when acting in accordance with an ideology that one holds deeply.

The Communist feels a great deal of freedom in putting community before capital, the Capitalist feels free with the fluctuations of the market (especially during the downturns, when there is a sense of honored commitment to the system), and the servant who believes in their monarch, feels free when they can serve that monarch (theologically as well as politically). The worker who gets his fair-price for his labor feels free within the system he believes in (after all most union protests are not against the system, rather for a sense of modest pay within the system).

Freedom, for most, is not the ability to act in any way, but rather, the love of a system that one believes in, or the satisfying of a personal desire through that system. The woman, who defines herself as a worker rather than as a person, will find freedom in a system in which she can work. Freedom is accepting and loving a system and the experience of freedom is an emotional state that one experiences when their desires align with a system. This is the core of both patriotism and dogma.

The feeling one gets from these systems is an emotional experience. Reduced to this, freedom is pleasure and control in displeasure. The feeling often described as freedom is not being able to choose what to do, but rather, not having to choose what to do. Freedom is felt when the system, environment, and people in our lives accord to our pleasure. When those things interfere with our pleasure, we feel a loss of freedom.

An illustration of this is the experience of freedom some describe in being controlled by others. There is a certain safety that some find in fascism, dogma, and masochistic abuse. A common example is found in abusive relationships between lovers.

In asking the question, what is freedom; we have arrived at a place where we understand freedom as an emotional experience that is less about the ability to do something and more about the ability to not have to do something. The experience can manifest as a political or economical endeavor, but ultimately reduces to a personal state that attempts to satisfy the constant tensions between me and myselfFreedom is, ultimately, a disregarding of the I.