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Freedom: What is freedom?

What is freedom?

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So what's freedom all about then? Political revolution? Putting a metal stud through your tongue? Standing on a box in the park and saying what you think? Backpacking around the world? Not being persecuted or tortured? Holding a passport and the right to vote? Spiritual enlightenment? Escaping grinding poverty? Dying your hair blue?
When I sat down to write this introduction, I felt burdened by the complexity of the subject. Great minds have filled huge books wrestling with this - how could I possibly sum it all up in a few hundred words? But then I realised I was mistakenly trying to produce a map - a 'this goes here and that relates to this like that' beginner's guide to some of the ideas and realities that shape our many understandings of freedom. Impossible. Instead, I offer a series of questions. Think of them like a compass - each suggests a meaningful direction to go - but none of them tell you what you'll find when you get there!
What makes a person free? Perhaps it depends on how we think about human beings. We exist in many different ways: we are physical, intellectual, political, social, sexual, spiritual beings. And just as we exist in a variety of ways, so we can experience different freedoms. But which is most important - which is really free? Can some exist without others? Or are they all equally important? Where does your freedom end and mine begin? Have you ever found yourself saying, 'Well I suppose it's OK as long as he isn't doing anyone else any harm...'? But what is harm? Can we passively as well as actively cause harm - through self-centredness or neglect?
Can you force someone to be free? If your best friend locked himself in a tower with nothing to eat or drink but an endless supply of whisky, what would you think? That he was free to drink himself to death since it wasn't hurting anyone else? Or that you must break the door down and save him from himself? OK, this is an extreme example - but do you or your friends smoke? It's not such an easy question then, is it? What about political freedom - does one country have the right to tell another country how to govern itself?
What about money? Does money make freedom, as well as the world, go round? If you had to choose between an education and no education - what would it be? Easy, right? What if it was an education or eating? Many of the world's population are so poor that basic levels of education or healthcare are a luxury they cannot afford. Are they free? If the 20% of the world's population who live in the richest nations use 86% of the world's resources - are the world's poorest paying for the freedom of the richest with their own? Do people want to be free? It's all very well taking your destiny into your own hands - but it's hard work. And who can you blame when things go wrong? As the German psychologist Erich Fromm has pointed out in his book 'Escape from Freedom', freedom is a responsibility many people don't want. Like sheep, we would rather follow whoever is at the front. Do you want to be free?

Janet Gunning, New Zealand/UK

We need freedom, freedom from something and freedom to do something. We need freedom from pressure, freedom from prejudice, freedom from self- deception. At the same time we need freedom to follow our conviction, freedom to take responsibility.
Freedom without responsibility is dangerous, both for society and for the individual. My country, The Netherlands, is a sad example, as we mistake tolerance for freedom. We want to be free to take drugs, which in fact means: freedom to get enslaved. We want to be free to get rid of unborn children and also of children who are born with handicaps, who may become a burden to society. But once we accept killing as a solution for one problem, we will soon find a hundred problems which could be solved by killing.
We want to be free to decide our own death, not realising that it means taking away the protection of all those whose lives are considered useless. When doctors are no longer punished for killing patients, as is the case in Holland, the danger is that people will be killed who did not ask for it. Ultimately, it will be the doctor, not the patient, who decides it is time to die. An investigation showed that in 1995 in almost 20% of all deaths, the attending doctor decided, with explicit or partial intention, to shorten the patient's life. In half of these cases there was no request by the patient.
A colleague of mine had a patient who could die any day. His son had booked a holiday which could not be cancelled, so he asked the doctor to make sure that his father was buried before he left. Being helped to die was not in the patient's interest, but for the sake of a relative.
An internist once told me about an elderly lady with cancer and shortness of breath who would probably die within a fortnight. He wanted to admit her to the hospital. She refused as she feared she would be 'euthanized'. However, he persuaded her to come in on Saturday when he was on duty, and by Sunday night she was breathing normally. The doctor went home and returned Monday afternoon. The lady was dead. A colleague had come into the ward and given her a lethal injection saying, 'It makes no difference whether this patient dies now or in a fortnight. We need this bed for someone else.'
Freedom is a valuable gift, but freedom for one group may become another group's nightmare. There can be too much freedom. I worked for eight years as a doctor in Morocco. One day the mother of a government employee came to ask for my help. Her son, whom I knew as a clever, diligent and pleasant young man, had begun smoking hash some months before. He had become addicted, sloppy, neglected his work, and even stolen money. He was dismissed, started to work in a pub, and was dismissed again. When I saw him, I gave him the facts on hash. He said, 'You should have told me before. Now I can't stop.' He was no longer a free man. People say hash is a soft drug. But because the drug is strongly fat-soluble, it is rapidly absorbed by fatty organs such as the brain and causes damage.
Then there is heroin. It is very addictive; users go out stealing in order to buy it. It slows down respiration so the body does not get enough oxygen. Yet, our government is giving free heroin to hundreds of severe addicts in order to prevent them from stealing and being a nuisance to the neighbourhood. This leaves them addicted.
We call ourselves mature, which means we consider ourselves responsible, but we seem unable to cope with excessive freedom. Sometimes people have to be protected against themselves. Sometimes freedom leads to slavery. Sometimes coercion is the way to get free.
Freedom is a precious but vulnerable plant. We must be careful not to destroy it. And yet it is clear that real freedom needs to be restricted. But where should the demarcation between desirable and undesirable freedom be? Drugs harm the user, the family and the neighbourhood. Abortion harms the unborn baby, and the expecting mother. Euthanasia harms the patient whose complaints could have been treated, and society which begins to regard killing as a solution. If the world's in a mess, it's because we use our freedom in the wrong way. Let's hope the new generation will use its freedom to create a world that is livable for everyone.

Dr Karel Gunning, The Netherlands

Accepting the trials of life is fundamental to freedom. When I left school at eighteen, I saw my chance to achieve what I wanted and to go to the places I had dreamt of. In my mind, freedom was defined by what I didn't want in life... school, my town, the people around me, and in the opportunity to get away. Only after I left these things did I become aware that they had been replaced by new 'negatives', and hence how complex the concept of freedom can be.
Kalil Gibran wrote, 'You shall be free indeed only when your days are not without care nor your nights without a want and a grief.' He is saying, it is only when we are not free that we can become free.
I will try to illustrate why this may be so. Last year a group of us at university invited a Russian dissident poet, Irina Ratushinskaya, to speak of her experiences in a Soviet labour camp. Her words made me reconsider where freedom comes from. She had spent many years in the camp and spoke of the deprivations, the humiliations, the periods of solitary confinement, the cold, the hunger and the gradual denigration of the human spirit. She spoke also of the people with whom she shared her confinement - their joys, sorrows, strikes, tricks, campaigns, celebrations, friendships and disputes. She also spoke of their garden, their home-made clothes and their fastidious housekeeping - examples of normality in the face of adversity.
Finally she spoke of her freedom whilst in captivity. She cited many examples of humour and, in a sense, a degree of fondness arising from the years of hardship. On the contrary, speaking of her subsequent liberty, she frequently displayed a sense of perplexity, anger and disappointment. This isn't to allege that Irina and her fellow detainees were freer in captivity than outside. What I do wish to suggest is that the situation of adversity was such that it enabled a degree of inner freedom. What captivity gave this small group of women was the cares Kalil Gibran speaks of, a reason to fight, to live for each day. It was as if life had challenged them to either stand up and live freely or begin to die. This forced them to create a community in which they could address one another's needs and share their great fear. By doing so, they experienced a freedom which I believe is the root of Irina's humour and wisdom. Freedom, therefore, is not simply a case of being on the inside or the outside.
A writer in the last issue of Global Express (Passion) stated that she had never experienced great trials in her life. Unlike those who suffered in the Bosnian war or the Ethiopian famine, for example, she felt she had never had the opportunity to show courage. Given such a test she hoped she could do just that. Is it necessary to wait for situations which force courage upon us? In a sense, isn't this an easy way to escape the responsibility of everyday freedom? Is not courage in and around us each day? The difficulty with freedom such as ours is that it is almost total. Those of us living in a country like the UK are able to do and say almost anything we please - such freedom can be paralysing. We are fortunate/unfortunate to be able to walk away from practically any situation we find unpleasant or frightening. As a result we have to choose the battles we fight and find our own way to live our freedom.
If we, in the 'free world', do not accept to live our outer freedoms, those accorded to us by laws, constitutions, societies and cultures, we are accepting them as yolks. This is a great mistake, for it is our inner freedom, that which we choose in life, which gives our outer freedom meaning.

James Wood, UK

Travel and freedom often go together. During six weeks of travel through India, I have learnt much about this thing called freedom. It is a far more complex quality than I had imagined and one that can produce thorns as well as beautiful roses. In postmodern times, according to social theorist Zygmund Bauman, 'Freedom is the value by which all other values are measured.' We want freedom from obligation and to remain absolutely unconstrained by how our actions might affect others. With this interpretation of freedom alone, I would never have survived in India.
I travelled with an international group of about thirty - we were Korean, Taiwanese, Sri Lankan, Indian, Lithuanian, Australian and New Zealander. I knew very few of the group before I arrived, but to be plucked from your 'comfort zone' and flung together to live twenty-four hours a day in a totally unknown context is surely one way to foster connectivity - even between individuals of such differing cultural backgrounds. And it is this connectivity that challenges the postmodern idea of the individual's 'right' to absolute freedom.
I guess I'm a postmodern girl - in no hurry to marry, expect to be able to do what I like and when, and pretty good at looking after myself at the expense of others. As for self-protection strategies, they're well developed - not many people get too close, because this would put limits on my freedom. But sweating between two others on a mattress one noisy night in Madras, with the palpable pollution seeming to pound at the window to get in, I made a conscious decision to do away with these strategies of defence. I have always been fearful of letting others know how I feel, because this brings with it what can be a frightening obligation - of empathy or connectivity. Emotions can be very strong, especially when you are far from home. I have enough trouble dealing with my own. Why would I knowingly give up my autonomy to take on the feelings of others? The reason is that this connectivity led to a new kind of freedom. By letting go of the fears to which I had clung so tightly for so long, I was left with the freedom to care for others - the freedom to weep when I listened to the horrific experiences of two from Sri Lanka; the freedom to simply be with those who became ill; the freedom to laugh when someone bit into a particularly hot chilli (sorry - not that funny!) And at the same time, I felt more grateful than I can tell for the unrestrained care shown by others toward me. This kind of freedom is not one that severs connections or that promotes individual autonomy, and it can be a difficult freedom to accept - especially in our comfortable day-to-day environments when obligation can seem like an unwanted tie. But when life is not easy, it is only this freedom to care - and to be cared for - that keeps us going.

Nicci Long, Australia

I can still remember my seventeen-year-old self twirling around in my graduation gown outside school, proudly waving my diploma, smiling for the cameras, and running up and down with my former classmates shouting, 'Freedom! We're done with school for good!'
What a feeling. After being stuck in a classroom for twelve years, it was impossible not to chant the famous lines, 'No more pencils, no more books, no more teachers' dirty looks!' Free from classes, free from homework, free from the chore and bore of the school routine. Now that my compulsory education was through, it was up to me to decide what I'd do with my days. At home with my new-found freedom I set out on a path to a life of relaxation. I put my scientific calculator and Mickey Mouse pencil sharpener away, and I made my bedroom an alarm-clock-free zone. I spread on some sunscreen, grabbed a towel and headed to the pool for some serious thinking about what to do now that I could do anything.
After much consideration my decision was made. I was going back to school. Yes indeed. I was off to university in two months' time, settling down for four more years behind a book. But how could I go back to school after I had just achieved my hard earned freedom? From television to term papers, from relaxation to research. Who would make that move? I did. And so did almost all the friends who had done the diploma dance with me only two months earlier. No one forced us to, but after high school came university, and that's just the way it worked. It was expected.
University was much less restrictive than high school, and I was free to skip lectures and classes if I wanted to. Unfortunately, this freedom was not really free. It came with the expensive designer price of low grades and less than thrilled parents. If I wanted to achieve, my main freedom was going to have to be the freedom to choose which corner of the library I'd burrow in each evening.
When my years of burrowing at last came to an end, I emerged from my book tunnel to celebrate another graduation. Again I waved my diploma, smiled, and said, 'I'm free and done with school for good!'
Then I turned my free, done-with-school-for-good self right around and walked back through the same university doors I had just exited. All I needed were two more years of study for a master's degree. How could I resist? It was the next logical step.
And so, after almost twenty years of academia, with a master's degree firmly in place and a third diploma in hand, I found myself again leaving school. Free once more. Finally. I was finished with the classroom, the studies, the assignments, the professors. Even my friend the librarian was ready to see me go. It was now off to the real world of a career. Time to go to work.
So, what was my chosen field? Where would I finally place myself now that a world of possibilities lay before me? Certainly it wouldn't be... couldn't be... tell me it wasn't... school. 'Good morning class. My name is Miss Kenny and I'll be your new teacher. Please take out your pencils and books. I suppose it made perfect sense for me to become a teacher. After all, teachers had been at the end of my line of vision since I was five years old. If you stare at something long enough, maybe you turn into it. And anyway, I respected teachers. They had helped me to become smart, and they'd brought me from behind the desk to where I stood now in front of the class. Never mind the fact that I was once again inside four walls in a building called school.
And this still wasn't always such a great place to be. Often my students would look at me as the paper airplanes flew by and ask, 'Why on earth did you become a teacher?' At airplane moments I was always unable to come up with an answer to that question, which gave plenty of time for the askers to sit back and say with conviction, 'I know I wouldn't be here if I didn't have to be.'
And maybe that's where the answer hid. I liked school more when I didn't have to be there. It was my choice to be a teacher, and I was free to leave that profession if I chose to. Teaching wasn't compulsory, it wasn't expected, it wasn't the next logical step. It was just what I'd decided to do through my own free will.
I'd known all along that education was a privilege, and that's one reason why I opted for it again and again. However, there's always something nice about coming to the end of a school year, and that might be another reason. The end of the year brings feelings of accomplishment, relief, and that sense of freedom that I had as a seventeen-year-old graduate. In fact, freedom has been so intermingled with my academic experience that I could probably spend a whole summer contemplating it. As soon as school's out, I think I will.

Christine Kenny, USA

We're in the kitchen, Francis (aged 5) and I (aged 40), making a pie for supper. He loves cooking and raw pastry... rolling and eating it. It takes much longer and I have to turn the radio off. After battering the pastry round a bit, and some genuinely useful carrot peeling, he's off. Attached to his stool is the cord he tied on (for reasons known only to himself) before going to school. He looks around for something to knot to the other end. Obviously, the best option is Mummy's leg. So I finish the pie and put it in the oven, negotiating that the stool stay in the middle of the kitchen floor so I can reach everything, and protesting when the knot gets too tight.
I'm always saying that this boy is like a ball and chain around my ankle (although he is very cute and I love him). I never seem to be able to get on with my life. So to help, I'm doing a course on Assertive Parenting: how to say 'no' firmly but respectfully etc. On Thursday nights, my daughter (aged 10) says, 'Don't learn anything, Mummy!'
At the first session we went through some stuff about rights and responsibilities, which didn't seem to have much to do with assertiveness. For each of our rights there are corresponding responsibilities. For example, if I have a right to be treated with respect, I have a responsibility to treat others with respect. I wondered what the point of all this was, until the penny dropped. Assertiveness is about choice. Say I wanted to drive to pick my son up from school but fancied driving on the other side of the road... it wouldn't work. I'm free to drive but have to conform or I'll be in trouble. Anyway, I choose to walk!
We have choices to make, all the time. We had a right to send our son to the local school. I now keep getting hauled in to see the teachers, because he doesn't like having to conform if he can help it. Once I had to see the Headteacher and suddenly felt 30 years younger (not a nice feeling!). If I've done my best for him at home, it's their job to sort him out at school. I tend to spend all day worrying (about having to go back to see the Head) but have to make myself get on with life while he's there. I have to use my freedom well. Like Cinderella, I only have a certain amount of time - until 3pm in my case. My little son has rights and responsibilities. He has to trade independence for co-operation at school, in order to be interested and to learn. He has to learn not to kick other children, in order to make friends. He is not free to act as he would like. But he is free to choose to act a certain way because the pay-off will be good.
I feel as if I have a lot of responsibilities, but I do get a lot of pay-off. I cook dinner, but I choose what we eat. I get my work done, and I get paid for it. I comb the children's hair for nits, then cuddle them (the children, not the nits.) Rewards, rights, freedom. All choices in the long run, even if some of the bigger ones do depend on voting for the least bad bunch of politicians.
I would like to get choice through to our small dog who, confused in his doggy psychology, feels he has to attack all large dogs he meets on his walks. He is not free to do this, partly because their owners don't like it. And I am not going to take him for walks if I have to spend my time apologising and dragging him out of trouble. So whenever another dog appears, I have to go into training mode, quick. One day, it will all click in his furry little head, by a simple process of choice. Obey muddled instinct, or go to heel and get a biscuit. Then he doesn't get put on the lead and values his freedom as much as we do!

Susan Riddell, UK

I love creative people. People who are themselves. People who are not ashamed of who they are or where they come from. That's not easy; by showing your 'real' self you are more vulnerable. That is freedom with all its risks.
Having come from a communist country where individuality and personality were not encouraged, I didn't think much of myself as a person. I was just 'another brick in the wall'. Trying to free yourself from the oppression, either by speaking up or writing it down was something you had to pay a price for. At secondary school I remember being told off for wearing a cross around my neck (communism denies the existence of God). My teacher said she understood that wearing a cross was the fashion (popular English band Depeche Mode) but that I should know better. I had the choice of telling her I wore it because I was Christian and risk being expelled, or of saying nothing. I chose the latter. I was too scared.
Ten years ago Eastern European countries were freed from totalitarian regime. The feeling of euphoria was everywhere. I thought: everything is going to be great. We could travel all over the world (provided we had the money) and study languages. Tourism and 'Western' culture came in. Suddenly we turned from a Russian influence to an American one. 'West is best' prevailed. Another feature of the new 'freedom' was the lack of time-out. Many people started their own businesses which required time and money. We used to be a very family-orientated people. Now many are too busy to spend a weekend with their family because of the business.
Three years ago I turned down two well-paid jobs to go to the UK and work with Foundations For Freedom, a programme for the newly acquired democracies in Eastern European countries. Some of my friends thought I was mad to go there for a year and work for pocket money. But I chose to do it because of the things I would learn and for my personal growth. Two years down the track I was in Australia doing a similar thing - working voluntarily. Most of my school-mates have well-paid jobs and are starting their own families, but I am in no rush. I want to mature, to deal with the things I would rather hide forever.
I said I like people who are not afraid of who they are. Recently I had my nose pierced. I'm not saying that to be ourselves we have to do drastic things. I did it partly because it's 'in' but mainly because I like it. It says: This is Gabra, the way she is. I am happy I had the freedom to choose.

Gabra Drgova, Czech Republic

I am sitting on green grass. I can hardly see the edge of the field. It meets the sky somewhere on the horizon, so everything around me is in green-blue shades. It's amazing to see green in the middle of winter. Where I come from, winter means white, whether you like it or not. It's fantastic. I have never thought about whether it is good or bad to live in such a remote place as Siberia. We never complain that it is cold; we regret that we have not put on an extra layer. I say 'we' because I was brought up to. 'We' meant that you were not alone, that there was someone to back you up and give a helping hand if needed. So we enjoy our winter and those who leave the country for good miss it.
I have the same feelings when I recollect my childhood. I miss the sense of unity, security and inspiration I felt as a Soviet Union citizen. I believed it was the best place to live, the 'brotherhood of nations'. I tried hard to be a good person to merit a place in that happy and high standard society. I had a faith in my country and in my people, never thinking about whether their ideas were Communist or not. They gave me freedom to dream and to make plans for the future.
Then everything changed. I was told that I believed in fake ideas, that I was a slave who was now free. The 12th of June was established as Independence Day. Everybody asked, 'Independence from what?', and could find no answer. Only the media was really free. They revealed the hidden facts of our history and overwhelmed people with information which was not always authentic. This generated fear in me - fear of the past and of the future.
Sometimes I can be a prisoner of my own thoughts. I fear something bad will happen which might make my world as small as a shell, inside which I could be locked by myself. I try to remember that it is always worth talking to people, asking them about something or for something. The worst that could happen is that they refuse to talk to me or say no, but at least I would not blame myself for missed opportunities.
For me, feelings of freedom and happiness usually coincide, but very often my happiness depends on other people and there can be no guarantees. Sometimes I wonder what it's like to be a river - to flow through different places, to see various people, to belong to no-one, to be neither good nor bad, to just exist. Is that freedom? Sometimes we suffer so much because of others that it is tempting to put up an iron curtain to protect ourselves, or to sting before we are stung. Or does being vulnerable, like the thin grass in this changeable English weather, make us free?
Being open and honest with people (whilst being aware that we could be hurt and rejected), being able to forgive both ourselves and others - could this give us freedom in relationships? Years of bitterness can destroy the soul and make us miserable. Suddenly we find ourselves living in the past, not able to let go or to find inspiration for the future.
Accepting the past and leaving it behind lets me out of a trap. Freedom is to see the opportunities and to use them to go forward. There are places in my heart or mind that cannot be affected by anyone. Things that belong to me and no-one else. Only I know about their existence - they cannot be taken away. This gives me inner freedom, maintains light and keeps me moving. It is the most powerful drive in me and makes me forget about the cold winter and rainy weather.

Lena Stepanova, Russia


Last update: 2000-02-06 15:38:57 (EEST).
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