Recently a number of books I’ve read have focussed on the author or the main character’s life-changing search for personal freedom. In a society where individual choice – a version of personal freedom – is highly valued, I wondered whether the pursuit of personal freedom is in fact the high point of happiness – life’s biggest thrill. And why is it so hard to find?
Some Recent Books on Personal Freedom
I first noticed this issue in Ben Okri’s ‘The Freedom Artist’. A sci-fi allegory, it says we are all living in (mental) prisons and only by asking ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Why am I here?’ do we have a chance of even recognising the prisons we are in. Sara Henstra’s ‘The Red Word’ is about a young woman caught between two conflicting worlds – feminism and college fraternities. Wanting to be part of both but, looking outside in at both, she realises that being herself – being free – is more important than belonging to either. Similar barriers emerge for gay writer Carolin Emcke (‘How We Desire’) and indigenous writer Melissa Lucashenko (‘Too Much Lip’) as each tries to navigate different worlds which are unwilling to accept the person who wants to be ‘free’.
Chloe Higgins (‘The Girls’) shows how the car accident, where her father was driving and her two sisters were killed, fundamentally changed her life, psychologically in this case. Late in the book, having moved away from everyone she knows, living alone, ignoring everyone else’s advice, she finally discovers personal ‘freedom’ and apparent happiness.
What is ‘Personal Freedom’?
When Okri first mentioned living in prisons, I was dismissive. But he shows, elegantly, how our attitudes and behaviours are heavily influenced by what is acceptable to society, to friends, to family and the constraints are so ingrained we don’t even see them! Yet many of the characters we love and admire in books, films, plays, on TV and online are ‘crazy’ people, breaking boundaries….doing what they like, not what the society, friends or family expect or require.
So our concepts of ‘personal freedom’ seem to actually be constrained versions of real freedom. We’d like to break the rules…but only if we aren’t found out/there are no consequences/our reputation is not impacted/we don’t upset friends, family, employer etc. Fundamentally, we live constrained by sets of rules – explicit and implicit – and generally abide by them. Yet, underneath, deep in our subconscious, we want to break out. And, in breaking out, we experience exhilaration because we are breaking out.
So ‘personal freedom’ is the ability to do what you like when you like, without regard to the rules, requirements or expectations of others about what is the ‘right’ thing to do. And I’m sure that, if you really examine your life, you will find that some of the best experiences you can remember are where you broke away from the ‘rules’ or ‘expectations’.
Why is ‘Personal Freedom’ so Hard to Achieve?
If personal freedom does give us so much of a thrill, why don’t we choose it more often? The book examples above show how much the constraints of a society bear down on those who try to live outside societal expectations, to break out, in whatever way, so the societal loss to a person can be substantial. We don’t expect to be able to imitate the crazy characters we admire– they are ‘crazy’! They may have thrilling lives, but the risks are too great for us.
So we live our bounded lives, hemmed in by constraints (or is it prisons?). Most people, like the Roman bread and circuses analogy, are happy to go along with them. Most people are totally unaware of the constraints, or perhaps in Orwell’s 1984 terms, regard them as ‘good’. And indeed, rules for operating societies are needed if we are to live cooperatively.
So What’s the Problem??
In valuing rule-abiding conformity, we perhaps undervalue non-conformity, individualism, innovativeness, creativity, difference, diversity. Perhaps in allowing individuals more liberty, more personal freedom, we might be a happier society. Perhaps in pursuing a little more personal freedom we might individually enjoy our lives more.
In this year of my 70th birthday, as I have been choosing to do what I like, what I want, I’ve found it enormously satisfying to free myself from what others might want me to do, or expect me to do. I know it’s selfish. I know it’s indulgent. I know I’m very lucky to afford to do these things (but I could choose other things on a more limited budget and probably be just as happy).
So think about what you truly want to do…and do it if you can. You might be very surprised at the outcomes.