In my previous essay on freedom I wrote about what freedom was not – it was not something that the United States fought wars about. I have been thinking since that essay about what freedom is, and it seems it can be many things and that it is a most complex concept.
With no thought of the date I began writing this essay on 9-11, now one of the most infamous days in U.S. history. The thousands of people who tragically lost their lives that day in 2002 also lost their freedom, as the ultimate freedom may be to be alive, but there are many other kinds or perceptions of freedom.
Freedom is most often associated with ideas such as liberty, autonomy, independence, and like concepts. The question arises, liberty or freedom from what? The answer often comes that it is freedom from anything that tries to shape the way you live your life – government at the top of the list, but the true libertarian will take this to mean freedom from all constraints on the individual. This idea of freedom would work very well if human beings were not social creatures – but we are. Without limits on what the individual might do, society would be in shambles. This was recognized from the very, very early times – probably on the plains of Africa when human first developed clans. Religion was and is primarily a tool of social design and a way to limit human behavior, various levels of military and governmental structures followed, many times allied with religion. The goal of all these designs was to limit individual freedom and shape the organization of people into manageable units. The balance between freedom of the individual and control from society has been a raging question of recent centuries, but in that context it is a modern question. From tribal groups to complex social structures of Asia and pre-Enlightenment Europe most people readily accepted the near complete control of the society on their lives. Where you were born into a society determined your place and duties throughout life. While this may seem repugnant to many modern people, and was many times cruel when related to the slave and lowest classes, it created a life of certainty – no climbing the ladder, no social stress, no insatiable desires for more. This lack of liberty in social position actually created freedom from many other concerns and when the system worked well a security for life.
The perceived social mobility of our times (though it has many limitations) has been used as a primary promotional tool for those favoring individual freedom over governmental controls. The extent to which this has taken extreme expression can be seen in the U.S. health care debate, where rather than have a government controlled system that cares for everyone, the powers that be insist on a system that cares only for those who can afford it, leaving millions to suffer and many to die. Rather than go on with examples and comparisons of this kind of freedom, I would just point out Scandinavian social democracies that have some of the longest life spans, the lowest infant mortality and the highest personal satisfaction ratings in the world.
A type of freedom that interests me greatly is freedom from the mind – yes, I did say from the mind, not of the mind. I believe that the greatest threat to our freedom comes not from government, or foreign countries, or controlling employers but from our own minds. As most of us grow into adulthood we allow our minds to enslave us into various negative mental states. Most of us think of our minds as being ourselves – we are our minds. This seems like a truism but in reality we are far more than our minds, the mind being only one component of our being. We are creatures who have remarkable physical systems that reach out into our environment in ways we no longer use. We have let our minds dominate us to the extent that we no longer truly experience our sense of touch, smell, taste, sight and sound. We live in a world that our minds and the media create rather than the vastly broader world of our open senses. If one can step into the world of the senses and quiet the mind, the concept of the “free individual” becomes meaningless; it becomes clear that the boundaries that separate people and all creation are in fact a construct of the mind. Beyond the cliques, we are truly one with all. This is enlightenment, and it is not a big deal, it is simply moving beyond the false image of the world created by the mind. While this may seem a spiritual concept, and may be to some, I see it as simply clearing the fog of the mind to see what is true in a scientific sense – we are all, everything, the same stuff, just put together in different ways. This star stuff that we are has been in millions of other forms and will be in million more when our form has passed. Again, I am beginning to sound a bit “out there” but it is not – it is all completely natural – it is just the way things work. I do not have trouble finding this insight in my daily life. I do have trouble (OK — lots of trouble) maintaining this insight in my daily life. The mind readily plunges me back into old ways of thinking and perceiving that carry me on paths I would rather not travel. The habits of the mind are those that deprive us of freedom to experience life fully and joyfully. Anger, depression, and cynicism are all demons of the mind that plague my life. Other people may have some of the same and some different, very few are without any. The ones who have rid themselves of the habits of the mind are free. Free to live life with open, receptive and ever expanding minds — minds that work with their senses and emotions to sustain themselves, others and this fragile planet.
That I can focus myself to try to come closer to this freedom from the mind is a testament to the fact that I have other freedoms already secured and secured for me – I am free from hunger – I have shelter – I have a degree of safety – in my retirement I have a minimal amount of financial security. These freedoms have been secured by the work of thirty years and the government that provided that work.
Freedom may also be seen as question of free will in contrast to predestination – my, oh my, what a philosophical issue this. Religion has had much to say on this topic from a myriad of points of view. What fascinates me is the more scientific perspective. In the unfolding of the universe is anything left to chance or is all a sure (but often chaotic) system of cause and effect? Most people feel they have choice (freedom) in their decisions – in the way they shape their lives. It certainly “feels” that way. It seems I made the decision to sit down and write this essay. I did it of my own free will. I wanted to write this essay because why? Well, as I stated, the first essay on freedom stimulated me to think about the idea of freedom more deeply. Yes, that is a cause and the writing is an effect, and I could go back and analyze why I wrote the first essay and come up with a cause for that as well and so on, and so on. Why did I sit down now to write this essay? I am in North Cascades national park doing an artist in residency. The visitor center where I have my studio closes at 5:00pm and they boot me out. I have no internet, no TV, no radio, no cell phone service, and it is raining as it has been all day. The evening is long and my choices are limited – the causes set me down at my laptop to work on this essay. Are each and every one of our decisions predestined by the causes of our existence? Is every tinny aspect of the universe following cause and effect? Is free will an illusion? I wish I had the insight or wisdom to answer these questions but I do not. The concept of freedom is full of such perplexing issues and will surely lead human beings to puzzle over them as long as we make our way in this world.
copyright 2010 Mark W. McGinnis