What is freedom to you?

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What is freedom to you?

Have you ever felt forced to make a decision you didn’t want to make? What about feeling trapped and unable to escape a bad situation whether it was work-related or a personal relationship? How about being told by an authority figure that you must comply with their directions or risk expulsion from something, or worse, imprisonment?

Remember when you were just a kid, playing on the playground and making new friends, exploring new games and finding new ways to use your imagination?

You had freedom. You could create your world and imagine it the way you wanted. You could be spontaneous and say what you wanted, getting corrected occasionally along the way. You could do this because adults understood you were a child who was exploring the world. They gave you the space to be who you were and understood when you made mistakes because you were learning.

What changed when you became older? Why do we get less slack or understanding about the learning process as we age? Is the basic assumption that we’re older, therefore, we should know better?

It’s true that wisdom is acquired through experience and can come with age for many of us – if we’re paying attention and willing to learn. Life is a classroom and a learning experience. Another thing we assume is true, or at least should be…We get as much freedom as we can handle.

Unfortunately, there are good people out there who don’t enjoy the freedoms we should all have. There are also not so good people who have too much freedom. Just like the assumption that as we age we increase our knowledge, there’s also the assumption that everyone gets to be as free as their actions allow them to be. If only life could be as simple and rational as:

Everyone is free to be whatever they want and live their lives the way they want as long as they don’t intentionally hurt others or themselves.

Why can’t everyone have the freedom to live their best life? Why is there such a need to control or regulate people? 

Why can’t freedom be a matter of common sense versus political or religious ideologies?

We understand that there are dangerous people out there. 

If you believe something, that is your belief. My belief, whether religious or not, is mine and shouldn’t be imposed on anyone else. It’s not about forcing others to share your belief or follow a path you want them to follow. Freedom is all about having free agency to do what you want, within the boundaries of the agreed upon morals and ethics of a society. Yes, laws exist to protect and because others didn’t exercise good decision making in the past.

Laws are designed to protect and regulate a society. They are basic standards to keep the peace and prevent us from harming ourselves and others. What about ethics and morals? 

They are a higher level of standards than laws. They help us do more than the minimum to protect us from ourselves and others. We must have morality in order to have a functioning society. Ethics tend to deal with a group of people and morals tend to be about the individual.

Laws, alone, can’t create a more safe and free society. Just because we tell people not to commit crimes, even instituting consequences for them, doesn’t mean they won’t do it. We must also have the higher standards of, not only ethics, but also resolute morals for each individual. Without a deep sense of morality, a society is more likely to eventually fall into chaos. Morality, like strong personal relationships, is the basic glue that holds together the fabric of a healthy society.

We must have morality in order to have a free society. We must treat each other with respect, decency, and compassion. A universally moral society fosters an environment where each of us can live and function without fear of unjust persecution or retribution. The more we can allow people to choose their level of freedom, and live according to the way they want to peacefully live, the more free our society can be. The more we can maintain our side of the street and allow others to maintain theirs, the more freedom we can have. 

Jonathan Sacks in his book, Morality, talks about the nature of the relationship between morality and freedom:

Remove the moral matrix of civil society and eventually you get populist politics and the death of freedom in the name of freedom. It is the wrong road to take.

We are seeing this happening around the world today. People get into their silos, groups, and echo chambers. They will stay where they are accepted and push back against those who don’t share the same views and beliefs. It feels good to be around those who share your convictions. It can also limit you and stunt your growth, strengthening what you already think and believe, while weakening your ability to think objectively. The blinders come on as the neutrality falls away.

We start to see things like polarization and the “Us” versus “Them” mentality. Then, we see each side trying to push their agendas. People start trying to regulate the actions of those who are on “the other side”. Things get more polarized and disconnected. We create sub-cultures like QAnon and Cancel Culture. If someone says something you disagree with, we want to limit their ability to say it. 

Of course you can’t use language that incites violence or creates dangerous situations, like shouting, “Bomb!” on an airplane. Yes, there are people who have mental health challenges like antisocial, psychotic, and sociopathic behaviors. They are the outliers. That’s not really what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about the vast majority of people who aren’t polarized and want to live in peace, enjoying all the freedoms humans should have. Among them, the freedom to choose how they think and act.

Yes, people will act according to their beliefs. They will still commit crimes and behave badly. A free society understands this and corrects this behavior according to each individual’s actions. We’re humans and it will never be perfect, but we must allow humans all the rights each of us would want to have for ourselves. Regardless of what they look like, who they worship, who they love, their gender and their genetic background, every human in every part of the world should begin life with the same rights. 

How we act or react should determine the level of freedom we choose for ourselves. Our actions should have consequences and we need to take responsibility for how we react. It’s a necessary part of being free. Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, said this about freedom:

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

Each of us has the freedom to choose how we show up each day. We can choose to act and think how we want. How we see ourselves, and the world around us, affects our lives. If I want to be angry, I will find things to be angry at or, if I want to be grateful, I will also find things to be grateful for, all of which exist around me at any given moment. It’s what I choose to see and focus on that really matters. I have the freedom to choose my lens and my attitude. 

We see this all the time. Someone who is angry at the world is constantly complaining about all the negative things or people pissing them off, daily. Another person who is sad or feeling depressed can be more susceptible to seeing or finding things to support how they feel. It works both ways. If I’m grateful, I will tend to find things to be grateful for or celebrate. It’s a matter of my perception which is fueled by my current beliefs that I hold. 

I can freely choose to be kind and thoughtful of others or be mean and disrespectful. My freedom lies in my mind, it always will. I can choose how I respond to others and any situation. Although, I may think I have no choice and, yes, in emergency situations we make split-second decisions which feel reflexive, but they are also choices we make to act or not act.

The question is how will we respond when, and if, we feel more restricted, more restrained from speaking how we feel? Historically when people feel censored or oppressed, they tend to push back or rise up against those who they feel are responsible for this. It hasn’t gone well. 

If we continue to place restrictions on our rights to speak or as humans, it will have a negative impact on society. Although we may not see it today, time has a way of showing us the consequences of our actions. Our forefathers, who put into place the laws and rights of a free American society, were trying to create a better society, despite the fact they didn’t realize the contradictions they were living in at the time. 

This is no more apparent than from the Constitutional statement: 

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

At the time, all men were not thought to be equal. People of color, primarily Africans taken from their countries, were kept as slaves and treated as though they were property, not humans. Additionally, women were not seen as equal and held less rights than men. Even though the leaders of America were trying to create a free and equal society, they were limited by the accepted social norms and morals of their time. 

Today, millions of people without their freedom still exist all around the world. Whether, it’s human trafficking or an authoritarian governent, many in our society don’t enjoy all of the freedom life has to offer us. They can’t speak freely or live their lives the way they want. Meaning, they can’t be open about their sexual orientation or act on it, they can’t celebrate their culture or practice their religion, they must comply with the established societal norms in order to appear neuro-typical, and many are still discriminated against based on their racial background or appearance. 

We know better, therefore, we must do better. We can no longer keep repeating the injustices of the past. We must keep reminders of our past, including artifacts, in museums or places where they can be studied and learned from. Erasing the past may help us feel better in the present but it can also open the door to repeating the mistakes of the past, in the future.

Right now, society is changing. It always has and always will. Change is constant. Whether or not it’s evolving or devolving is debatable. It’s based on your perception and it’s subjective. You may believe society is going in the wrong direction because of how you are seeing or experiencing it. Truthfully, we have made progress towards a more fair and just society over a long period of time. There is a positive movement from century to century. As Martin Luther King Jr. stated:

The moral arc of the universe bends at the elbow of justice. 

Life is getting better for people. Not everyone and not in every place, yet. We are still learning how to do this for more people. As we learn, we are working to do better. One of the main opportunities lies in being and doing what is right, just and more representative of a diverse society, rather than the ruling percentage of society. It’s about focusing on creating more freedom for those who don’t have it because they get marginalized. Shifting from an “I” focus to an “We” focus, as Jonathan Sacks puts it, when implementing changes.

Think about it this way: What would you want for yourself and is it also what’s best for society?

There isn’t an ideal society because we are humans, inherently fallible and beautifully imperfect. Trying to create an ideal society is a worthwhile cause but, historically, humans have gone about it in horrific ways. Think about the millions who have died as the result of one person or a group of people’s idealistic views. We, as humans, have tried to impose or force our ideals on others to our own detriment. 

We still do this. People think they know what’s best for society and try to influence leaders to push their agendas. The concept of “ideal” is subjective and based on each individual. It all goes back to finding what helps the most people possible. 

Giving each person the freedom and opportunity to be themselves, to live their life the way they want to, as long as they don’t try to harm themselves or anyone else in society, free from oppression, and fully able to pursue life, liberty, and their own happiness. It’s the moral thing to do today and going forward.

To experience the world through the eyes of a child, curious and excited about the next discovery, anticipating the next adventure, open to learning and accepting others as they join the game, free to be who you want, live your life in peace, and enjoy all the freedoms life has to offer. It’s what freedom is all about for each of us. It’s what many want, including myself.

How about you?

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