What does freedom mean to you?
Freedom is the ability to pull yourself away from things that limit your potential. Freedom from obsession, from doubt, from criticism (both self and from others), from social norms and expectations. Freedom is an escape from the artificial worlds we build around ourselves and the impositions that we place on ourselves because of them. Freedom is the permission to be who and what we truly are: not as people or citizens, but living, breathing, thinking, and feeling animals.
Freedom can never be truly explained; it has to be experienced. It’s not about permanently escaping society or responsibilities, but learning to use them as tools. Money is a powerful example: for most of us, life revolves around money. We rely on it for survival, and we dedicate most of our waking hours to earning and managing it. It doesn’t directly bring happiness, but it does open us to countless opportunities and experiences. Freedom from money doesn’t mean becoming rich – I’d argue that the richest people are even more entrapped by money than the poorest of us – but it means thinking beyond money and recognizing it for what it is: a tool. It’s one infinitesimal part of the endlessly vast and complex human experience.
The challenge is that most of us were raised to conflate constructs like money with the entirety of our existence. Religion (institutional religion especially) is the literal interpretation of this. It is described as a natural system laid out in the very fabric of the universe, and that any alternatives are cosmically impossible. When an idea presents itself as the framework for the entirety of our existence and encompasses everything that we can possibly fathom, how can we argue with it?
Trapped in the Box
When we’re stuck in these systems of thought, breaking free is extraordinarily difficult. “Thinking outside the box” is a warm and fuzzy saying, but it underplays the amount of effort that goes into breaking out of the box. To escape the box, you must first conceptualize life without the box. But if the box is something close and meaningful to you (your religion, your political party, your sexual orientation, etc.), leaving it can feel like leaving part of yourself. There’s no comfort in freedom when you feel like you’re abandoning the things you love.
There are two arguments against this: for one, breaking free is not the same thing as abandonment. Also, restricting yourself to a certain way of thinking may offer some benefits like certainty and self-esteem, but it comes with many hidden impositions that could actually be affecting you negatively.
Freedom is not Abandonment
Freedom from something does not mean abandoning it or leaving it behind. We can enjoy things without tying them to our identity. This might sound obvious, but we have a tendency to latch on to things we enjoy at the expense of others. Breaking free isn’t about leaving these things behind, but realizing that we don’t need them to define who we are.
Here’s a thought exercise for you: imagine all possible human experience as a marble that you are holding in your hand. Right now, you’re holding the marble in a very particular way and only seeing a small subset of the patterns, angles, shapes, and reflections that the marble casts. When you have a new experience, it’s not the marble that changes, but rather how you hold and look at the marble. Your field of view expands, your eyes resolve more detail, or you rotate your hand slightly to look at the marble from a different angle. Changing your view even just a little can completely change how you experience the world. You’re still looking at the same marble, but now you have the freedom to twist, pivot, and zoom it as you wish. You have access to so much more.
Many of us are too comfortable or too afraid to turn our marbles. Some of us have even lost our marbles – or so we think. The reality is that the marble is always there, we just can’t recognize it from the angle we’re looking at it. Turning the marble is terrifying because of this risk of “getting lost”, but that’s part of the growing process.
Freedom From Negativity
These impositions that we place on ourselves may have benefits, but they often come with costs: stress, anxiety, uncertainty, and many others. What are they really worth to you? Do you get enough enjoyment, satisfaction, or happiness out of them to justify the toll they place on you? Or are you doing them out of habit, or because it’s how you were raised, or because you’re too afraid to try something different? I assure you, doing it just because “it’s all you know” is not worth the harm it’s causing you.
Take a deep look at your behaviors, and if any of them are harming you, change. Better to take a leap of faith into uncertainty than continue in an activity that’s actively harming you.
Try it. Break free. Trust me.
Now’s the time to take action.
Pick a habit, hobby, behavior, or interest that you normally don’t think about. Maybe it’s a religious practice, a relationship, your job, your drinking, your friendships, whatever. Think deeply about the impact it has on your life.
- How do you instinctively feel about it? How do you feel while thinking about it, while doing it, and after doing in it?
- How does it impact your mental, physical, and emotional health?
- Do you have any thoughts or desires that seem to conflict with it?
- What would it take for you to step back from it, and how would that affect your day to day life?
Anything can happen when you break free of a habit. This includes good things (things that benefit you) and bad things (things that harm you). But instead of pursuing the good and avoiding the bad, be open to both. Both are healthy, since they indicate growth, change, and development. The bad can even be more helpful than the good, since they show you which directions are the wrong directions.
Most importantly, have fun with it. Life is an experiment: we are always developing new ideas, trying them out, and measuring their success. This goes for everything we do as living creatures, especially those everyday “truths” we take for granted. Whatever scary or different thing you’re thinking of doing, go for it. Reflect on it, make a plan, meditate, do whatever is most effective or feels right for you. Ask for help from someone you trust. And remember, even if you fall flat on your face, at least you’re still moving forward.
Freedom is faith. Have faith in yourself and your abilities, and you’ll experience life in revolutionary ways. You’ve got this.