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How Free Are We?

What is 'free' after all? This is a complex concept to deal with, if one wants to cover it in totality. Definitions of ‘freedom’ are manifold in every dictionary you care to consult, so whatever angle you choose to consider at any time you need to keep the perspective that what you’re addressing is but a mere part of the concept of freedom. It’s like a bunch of flowers – one of them alone doesn’t produce the sensation that the whole bunch inspires; like a diamond - it's worthless if it isn’t multifaceted in a balanced way; one aspect of one’s life is negligible if it’s not considered in balance with the rest of that person’s being.

I could go on, finding examples to demonstrate the catchall for the concept of freedom and this would be expected of me, if I were to write an academic paper on this subject, but I’m free from that task. Back in the sixties I would have organised this as an interesting chat with friends, around a camp fire, with a bottle of wine one evening on a beach somewhere, but this would be hard to pull together nowadays (apart from back home, in the south of Spain, where people are free from the precipitation of daily living, however the supply of grey matter would prove to be a challenge over there).

I’ll tell you what I think freedom is by sharing my paradox with you. Let’s start from the end: I consider myself a free person, but… I’m not free. I lived through various systems during my life and I’ve learned how to free myself from each and every one of them and this is where that question of ‘to be or not to be’ free comes under scrutiny.

Some of these systems are inherently imposed upon us from the moment of our birth, such as family life, in which we take a role both as a growing child and as an adult; schooling and then various political, religious, aesthetic, medical systems etc. Others are optional, such as all the organisations and associations one chooses to join and be part of for various reasons, at various stages in one’s life; all the newspapers and magazines one reads at any time are another system called the media, which also includes documentaries, broadcasted news,  programmes and films.

Risking to sound one-sided, I shall leave a discussion about the benefits and the drawbacks of being associated with various systems (intentionally or not) for another occasion and I’ll stay focused on the notion of freedom and my paradox.

So, how can one consider oneself free, yet not be free as such? Consider a simple example: John is married to Mary, but their marriage is so bad that he decides the best solution would be to get a divorce, whereby he would get free to carry on with his life. So in this case the internal ties to the marriage are withdrawn. Roles can easily be reversed and the concept would apply equally. However, Mary will not reciprocate regardless of how bad the situation may get, leading to a case where the external ties are still cementing John in a bad relationship.

Well, the most obvious two options related to the notion of freedom here are a) John could stay and endure a depressing and life-draining situation and b) John could consider himself free to live his life to the full, which was in fact his option in this example. Now John is free to meet people and have the normal life of a person who’s not married (well, as long as he doesn’t deceive anybody in the process, which is yet another system that can infringe into our sense of freedom to an extent or another – ethics), but there is a limit. In monogamous societies this limit is the point at which one wishes to re-marry, but hasn’t yet obtained an official divorce.

QED: John is free to do anything but marry another person in such a society where the law doesn’t permit it. So, he isn’t free. Inwardly he is free, but the external system is restricting his freedom to an extent. It now depends on how strong that inner sense of freedom is, which will dictate how well or how badly a person will accept this situation. Some can live with it happily ever after, others can’t.

Just as it takes two to tango, it takes two to be free!

That is to say the two sides of the equation need to agree to that freedom. Well, in my experience, there are very few systems (and people) that disclose upfront and in a transparent manner all their clauses, terms and conditions, for one to be able to decide confidently on associating with the respective system/person or not.

Then there is the other aspect of being able to choose to not associate with certain systems (however transparent they may put across their terms), or on the contrary having to become part of a system, however reluctantly. Think of the system of work.

I have friends who are happily not in need of work. They do live on planet Earth and they are real people, so they still need money, but their money comes from different supplies than from an employer. I’m not touching on devious sources of income, I’m only referring to candid personal arrangements between one friend and his parents, another friend and her partner, another friend and her late husband’s legacy.

So, they are free then! Ah, that depends on the limitations on their freedom the other system imposes on them – is it a loving and indulging family or is it a family that’s training my friend into a future slave? Is it a loving and respecting partner, or is he one who imposes onto my friend’s emotional freedom and wellbeing by putting her down at any occasion and otherwise treating her badly? Is that legacy allowing my friend to feel free to live a fulfilling life, or is it restraining her to live in conditions she would not have expected during her golden age, given that she didn’t have to work during her married life?

In conclusion, I think a person is free to the extent to which (s)he is not restricted by an association with an external system, other persons, or internally with an addiction, an unbalanced way of living or thinking etc. These associations may be by free will or they may be imposed. Because being "free" is not an absolute, like 'black' and 'white', 'complete', 'void' - we can be more or less free, we have levels of freedom, hence my line of thought above.

I figured out humbly enough, that there are at least two distinct ways of achieving that level of freedom: one is by managing to dodge the systems by avoiding any kind of restrictive situations and another one by living one’s life in harmony and acceptance of what it is presenting at any moment in time. Personally, I am successfully applying a happy combination of the two in my life. If other ways become apparent, I shall consider trying them or ... dodging them, depending on the limitations of freedom they would impose on me.

I was just listening to the work "Utopia of Usurers" by Gilbert R. Chesterton tonight and I heard something interesting that may bring another angle for deliberating the idea above. He made a distinction between two kinds of pleasure of the poor people: one kind that may also mean profits for the rich and the other kind which cannot mean profits for the rich. Then he urged us to 'Watch this one contrast, and you will watch the whole creation of a careful slavery.' This is one way I'm using to dodge the enslaving systems - I'm choosing my preferred activities carefully and I apply the live and let live philosophy in my life. Sadly, I didn't apply this to purchasing a house in the South of Spain and I continue to entertain my banksters with my monthly meagre income of a part-time job as a teacher, in spite of the recession in Europe. Even so, there are ways out of this and I shall find the one that suits my circumstances in due time. I'll keep you posted.

Always look on the bright side of life!

A man asks his friend just before getting married: ‘So, what do you think of the institution of marriage?’ The friend replies: ‘Oh, it’s wonderful! For those who want to live in an institution…’

The doctor to the patient: 'You've contracted a very dangerous and contagious disease, so you'll be moved to a private ward. You'll eat only pizza and pancakes for the duration of your stay there'. The patient: 'Will that help me to get better?' The doctor: 'No, but this is all that fits underneath the door'.

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