“I wish that every human life might be pure transparent freedom.”
― Simone de Beauvoir
Freedom, at least the perception of it, is a tricky thing. As we humans have developed the technology to make our day-to-day survival easier, we are afforded the time to contemplate our state of being. After all, when you need to spend the bulk of your day securing your next source of sustenance, the more esoteric questions about the nature of life tend to be pushed to the back burner. Living in a relative state of leisure, first-world modern humans are not only able to spend time reflecting on the nature of life, but have access to a veritable ocean of information at the click of a button. We have options that our ancestors would never have dared to dream of. French fusion or Thai tonight, dear? And on the surface, this state of affairs could be viewed as optimal in terms of choice and freedom. But is it?
Along with our buffet of daily choices comes obligation. If we don’t drag ourselves to the office, the mortgage doesn’t get paid. The children need to be fed, the dog walked, the lawn mowed. We may find ourselves then, adrift in a sea of choices, but anchored by a hundred responsibilities that hinder our perceived freedom. Of course, the choice exists. You can opt to blow off work and go to the beach. The car payment can be spent on that sexy pair of shoes. But we must be prepared to face the consequences of our actions. Though we are, by in large, not willing to allow ourselves to think in this manner…after all, it’s easier to spend the day working when we keep internally repeating that we have to…this does not erase the existence of the choice.
In some ways, that sense of obligation enables coping with some very unpleasant situations (think politics discussed over Thanksgiving dinner), but it can also result in the perception of a shackled life. As Sartre reflected, “We are our choices.” But if we are not engaging in active choosing, where does that leave us? Who are we, and what is the purpose of life other than to freely choose our actions? Yes, modern life has afforded us an array of options, and at the same time, imposed a set of new duties. But it has also stolen from us the deliberate nature of decision-making. A life that is comprised of “I have to” statements…I have to go to school, I have to get a job, I have to find a mate, have children, buy a house…leaves us feeling as though we are carried along in the rushing river, unable to direct the prow down an appealing rivulet along the way. Active choice represents an oar; an ability to control the current. Freedom.
“The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”
― Albert Camus
I find myself drowning in the sense of obligation that the river of “right” choices has levied upon me. The consequences of failure to carry out duties are too great to bear. This results in an overwhelming sense of being trapped. Flailing and gasping, head barely above water, I reached out for some choice…any choice…to give me a sense of control over my being. I landed on the choice to live. Our continued existence is an active decision. We have the ability to end ourselves; waking up in the morning and going about our day is something that we elect to do. In that choice lies freedom, and control over one’s destiny, so to speak. “If I take death into my life, acknowledge it, and face it squarely, I will free myself from the anxiety of death and the pettiness of life – and only then will I be free to become myself,” (Heidegger). He wasn’t specifically
addressing the concept of freedom, here. However, this statement is applicable. Once the realization breaks that this most basic of acts, existing, is an active decision, others seem positively manageable in comparison. The idea that we have a modicum of say in what happens to us is equivalent to re-gaining some of the freedom we sacrifice to obligation. We become our choices, as active participants in life.
Active participation does not always equate to ease. In order to do so, we come up against some very painful truths. ““I tore myself away from the safe comfort of certainties through my love for truth – and truth rewarded me,” (de Beauvoir). Which duties are necessary to maintain, and which are ultimately expendable? But what is pain and awareness if not the feeling of life itself? The sacrifice of comfort is surely worth the ability to travel down tributaries unexplored.