Monday, July 9, 2012

Freedom Isn't Free

Since before Independence Day, I've been ruminating over the concept of freedom. What is freedom? How do we define it? What does it mean practically in daily life?
Like many things, freedom means different things to different people. Often I hear rhetoric about patriotism associated with freedom. But freedom isn't just political or economic. At its most basic level, it is personal. Personal freedom is the root from which all others grow.
I think the best example is the culture of Oakland. In Oakland people do what they want. It is a "freedom from" as well as a "freedom to" situation. Despite legislation saying one thing or another, it is generally accepted that a person can walk down the street with an open container. It is accepted that people will perform guerilla art, leaving walls covered in magnificent murals or signposts baring their own knitted creations. Street fairs are common, as are community parades - no permit necessary.
Of course there are consequences to such a culture. When the police become involved, things are more extreme. Historically, OPD is known for its brutality. I can't imagine our penchant for doing what we like helps.
But freedom doesn't have to be even as public as this. Fundamentally, our level of freedom is influenced by our personal power. Power is derived from many things, not the least of which are types of capital. I am thinking particularly of physical assets like money and vehicles, to social capital, such as connections. We have all experienced the freedom to do things derived from resource rich situations (whether it was watching someone else or exercising it ourselves).
Yet freedom is still more fundamental. It is literally a mental problem. We box ourselves in. We choose to be confined within socially accepted constraints, rather than choosing more creative possibilities. For example, the traditional route for acquiring a bed. A typical person would think only of purchasing a new bed from a store. But what about goodwill? That would be a more creative solution. What about Craigslist? That may result in a free bed, which is a little more outside the box. Still, you could design your bed. This would be the most creative solution, resulting in something perfect for your space. It is the most personal and the most open-ended choice. The limits are your resources - as opposed to someone else's conception of a bed. It is therefore the most liberating of the potential choices.
Yet this choice is not often made. The idea of creating one's own bed is daunting to most people. Most people would gladly give up their freedom in exchange for security. A person knows what the bed will look like and how it will work because it has been tested. There is no question. So instead of more choices, one acquires safety in knowing the bed will perform according to expectations. This is the often the result of fear - fear of failure, inability, unhappiness, insecurity and the list goes on.
The sad truth is that few people actually want freedom. They misunderstand what freedom means practically. It's fine to talk about freedom as a grandiose concept relating to American myth. But once we turn the discussion to choices in the real world, freedom is too scary and much too problematic.
The more I think about this frightening concept, the more I realize how much I love it. I love the thrill of correcting a mistake in creation. I love the thrill of choosing. The difficulty is when there are too many choices, but it's a difficulty I'm willing to overcome.
True independence is a pain in the ass. Sometimes I have to sacrifice security in order to obtain it. Even still, if I wasn't living freely, I'd die. So who cares about a little indecision?

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