“Freedom may be mankind’s natural state, but so is sitting in a tree eating your dinner while it is still wriggling.”
― Terry Pratchett
Freedom is a word that gets thrown around quite a lot, especially when subjects commonly held to be “political” get underway. What never gets explored, however, is just what — exactly — is meant by “freedom.” And this is a problem because, more often than not, what is meant by freedom is a state of existence as foreign to human life as human life is to the center of the Sun.
This is not a metaphysical argument to be ignored; the concept of freedom is one which holds intimate importance to our lives. Our concept of freedom determines the very fabric of our society. In this
What is freedom often understood as?
Ask ten different people, you can expect ten different answers. But I bet that a large portion of those people will say something much like the following:
- “Freedom is the right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint.” (Websters)
By this, people are talking about the freedom to choose. Freedom of choice is a powerful concept and one embedded in our western ideal of a democratic condition. Every individual has the right to be an individual. This is a good development in the overall landscape of human history. However, this idea of “freedom of choice” is also, usually, not very well understood.
Let’s forestall entering the complicated worlds of either neuroscience or metaphysics and, for a moment, consider the larger scale concept.
Being free to choose usually contains an inherent limitation when seriously considered. This is, namely, that people should have personal freedom as long as that freedom does not restrict the freedom of others. I get to be free as long as I am not restricting your ability to be free. If everyone abides by this (so this line of reasoning goes) we can all live happily devoid of any sort of tyranny.
We agree that this limitation on our own freedom is necessary because, without it, we would be experiencing a state of profound chaos, a state similar to Los Angeles traffic in the middle of summer (that is: not desirable).
But once we admit this simple addition to a concept of absolute freedom, we are left with a profoundly more complicated system than we started with. Why? Because this addition to our definition of freedom implies that my actions affect others.
Action Networking (cause and effect within a complex system)
Once we accept that our actions have an affect on the world around us (and therefore understand that this is also true for the actions of others) we arrive at the imperative realization that our lives are not isolated. But this is not a one-way process, from me to someone else. There is a line of direct causation that takes place when I interact with someone but the interaction branches out, it spiderwebs, far beyond the linear.
By which to say: if I’m line at a store where a young mother ahead of me is realizing she doesn’t have enough money to pay for the food she purchased and, upon witnessing this, I step in and offer to pay the remainder of her cost, that action affects more than just the woman — or even just the woman and her children.* Such actions reverberate throughout spacetime like the beating of a great, cosmic drum. The potential future is altered by my actions in that moment.
Nor does attempting to avoid making a choice remove us from this automatic networking. Choose not to act in any given situation and your act not to act will still effect the outcome of any given situation.
Of course, we cannot know if our actions will lead to a better state of reality for anyone or anything — all we can do is act with the best possible faith that a positive outcome will come from positive action. We can, however, improve our odds of creating positive impacts by taking the time to consider how our actions change the world. If, before we decide to do something, we carefully consider what the repercussions of that action will be within the lives of other people, we stand a better chance of creating an outcome that makes reality a little bit better.
Here’s an example of complexity within a traditionally-political sphere.
In 2014, my county created a 10-cent minimum bag fee that all retail stores had to charge their customers. This was designed to curtail the plastic bag detritus that was harmful to wilderness areas and darn unsightly to-boot. This was generally accepted as a positive thing (a plastics-industry-led attack in the “tax” was the only attempt at pushing back the law). However, five years after the law has been signed, we are encountering a problem with supposedly-recyclable plastic bags being introduced in grocery stores… but which the county recycling agency will not accept as they “clog the recycling machines.” We are seeing a remarked decrease (around 70%) in the use of non-reusable bags in our county. But, because of the limited scope of the law, problems surrounding this issue continue to exist. If a more systemic approach to our lawmaking had been possible (it rarely is) we might have been able to consider this issue. And this is only one facet of the question. Another which was recently brought to my attention is “homeless people relied on easily-available plastic bags to handle a number of their basic needs.” And suddenly, there is a whole new realm opened up for our awareness and consideration. At the end of the day keeping the environment healthy is the most important thing… but the factors which make that possible are always going to be more complex than they will first appear. Our freedom is like this. Everything is more complex than it at first appears.
Yet, these do not have to be grand gestures, either.
While offering to pay for someone’s food, initiating laws to protect the environment we all share, voting to ensure a welfare bill is passed, or fighting for a veteran’s right to access good mental healthcare are all good, the actions we take that have large ripples can be much smaller.
It can be as simple as smiling to the people you meet on the street. It can be as simple as saying “thank you” to your barista in the morning. As easy as taking out the trash for a loved one even though you’re already tired from a long working day. It’s not about the thought of “reward,” because that can sour things. It’s just about doing what makes the world better.
And, fundamentally, it means not taking the world around you for granted.
Bring It Back to “Me”
Okay, so things are interconnected… but how does that affect us, on an individual level. Being nice to people is fine and all but what does it do for me? That’s a question plenty of people will be asking themselves. And that’s okay. We do not need to feel bad about taking our needs into consideration. (In the future I’ll write more about the wonderful intricacies of this point, but for now…)
First, we have to realize that the changes made by our actions will probably be subtle — we have to learn to pay attention to the subtlety of the world around us. Sometimes what appears to be an inconvenience to us might actually be a blessing.
This is about understanding that the individual is stronger if the whole is also stronger. Our society needs this shift in thinking. But that shift takes place through the actions of the individuals of whom society is composed. There is a constant feedback loop between individual action and the society they inhabit.
Better actions (those dedicated to cooperation, unity, compassion, honor) will lead to a society that displays those qualities. To see the sort of society created by greed, exclusive self-interest, and aggressive competition, we unfortunately only have to look around us. In order to change the current world into something better, we individuals need to act like seeds for betterment; we need to carry on lifting up society for everyone, not just for the few — because this is what having a society (and being human) is all about.
To conclude, let’s consider the immortal words of Sir Terry Pratchett once again. As we open, so we close.
It was so much easier to blame it on Them. It was bleakly depressing to think that They were Us. If it was Them, then nothing was anyone’s fault. If it was Us, what did that make Me? After all, I’m one of Us. I must be. I’ve certainly never thought of myself as one of Them. No one ever thinks of themselves as one of Them. We’re always one of Us. It’s Them that do the bad things.
Like this? I’m sure you’ll enjoy my article Hard Work: The Greatest Con.
*I’m aware that this is a scam people sometimes run — but, frankly, were I in a position to offer aid without directly harming myself (I’m quite poor so my available funds for things like this are limited) — there would still be no reason to avoid helping. Chances are, the person doing the scamming is doing so for some reason of hardship. The “rippling out” of our actions happens, one way or another, so why no lean into the ones with the greatest potential for goodness? I give when I can, despite my meager means, because I believe I can create some sense of goodness within myself and those I encounter. I believe that this is a better way to handle ourselves than being protectionist.