‘Freedom’ is such an attractive word. Few words and ideas carry as much appeal and power as the word ‘freedom.’
I was listening to a lecture given by Dallas Willard recently in which he touched on the importance of freedom in living the fullest possible life. His comments have got me thinking about freedom in new ways, ways that are challenging my existing ideas about the very essence of freedom. I’ve been pondering simple yet surprisingly profound questions like, what is freedom? What do we even mean when we talk about freedom?
Willard claimed that, in contemporary times, it is often understood as ‘freedom from ‘ That we usually conceive of freedom as the state of being free from political impositions, from religious coercions, from financial burdens, from restrictions, oppressions, tyrannies, and so on. This meaning of freedom has vital importance. Yet it is severely limited and open misunderstandings if it is made to be the whole meaning of freedom.
What Willard claims is often missing from our common conception of freedom is ‘freedom for ‘ Freedom is not simply a state of being free from unwelcome impositions; freedom is essentially the ‘capacity to live fully in the world,’ the capacity to willingly live for someone or something. Freedom, then, should be defined at least partly in positive terms and not strictly in negative terms. When we think of freedom, we should think about what we live for in exercising it equally as much as we think about what it frees us from.
What’s struck me most about reflecting upon the implications of Willard’s thoughts on freedom is that I have frequently (and falsely) imagined freedom to be dichotomous with things that it is not, in actuality. For example, I have often thought freedom to be the opposite of submission. Submitting to someone or something requires a person to relinquish their freedom, right? Well, as I’ve discovered, not necessarily. If freedom is essentially the ‘capacity to live fully in the world,’ as Willard suggests, then exercising freedom for something always involves submitting to a particular pursuit. For example, if someone wants to learn to play an instrument, they must submit themselves (perhaps a more agreeable word would be ‘commit’ themselves) to practicing and learning the skills necessary to play. Submitting to practicing is even preceded by submitting to the reality that one is unable to play well. Submission is in fact a natural consequence and expression of genuine freedom for a passionate musician. From the outset, the musician exercises their freedom by willingly submitting to the time-consuming and sometimes tedious work of practicing scales and progressions and pieces. And improving is a struggle in the early stages of learning. But the more the musician submits themselves to learning to play their instrument, the more they are able to increasingly play with freedom and spontaneity. In the journey of becoming a proficient musician, one exercises freedom necessarily through submission. What’s more, the pathway that increasingly leads to creative freedom is paved by intentional submission. What has surprised me in all of this is that freedom and submission turn out be friends instead of foes in this sort of instance.
Similarly, I have often thought freedom to be the opposite of impositions, restrictions, and boundaries. But again, a person who exercises their freedom to pursue a particular passion or work inescapably imposes suitable restrictions and boundaries on themselves by virtue of the fact that they are a limited human being who cannot pursue every passion and every work. Whenever we focus our time, attention, and will towards any particular passion, we simultaneously restrict ourselves from other pursuits. Whenever we decide a certain task is worth prioritizing we tacitly decide that other tasks are of lesser priority. We impose restrictions and boundaries on the way we use our time and on the way we use our effort. These principles of improvement hold true for all skilled musicians, teachers, scientists, writers, engineers, artists, activists, and so on. Becoming good at anything requires aspiring individuals to willingly devote themselves to the task, while obeying the accompanying restrictions imposed by reality.
As I’ve reflected on Willard’s ideas, I’m inclined to agree: freedom is primarily the capacity to live fully in the world, and secondarily the state of being free from anything or any person that would impinge on such a capacity to live fully.
I think we delude ourselves when we imagine we can exist in a pure state of ‘freedom from.‘ We delude ourselves if we think we have not submitted to any person or any idea or any lifestyle. We delude ourselves if we think we can be free from living for someone of something, because, like it or not, each one of us is a slave.
To put freedom’s choice forcefully, the question of real freedom is: to what will you choose to be enslaved?