What is the thing we want most? Freedom. What is the thing we fear most? Freedom. How can those two answers be the same? If you ask an existentialist, they might say it is because freedom is part of our human condition, but freedom is not a thing you can “have,” “own,” or purchase as an app. Freedom is pure potentiality, like a surge of electricity: it can warm up the home and make it safe, comfortable, and real, or it can burn it to the ground. Freedom is not inherently bad or good, it just is. Every day we have to make a thousand little choices that reinforce our big ones, we have to keep answering the question, “do I choose to act freely today, or will be acting in a way that goes along with the majority? The popular opinion? Habit? Convenience? Superstition? Delusion?” Granted, few people actually ask themselves that consciously. But when you struggle with questions like, “should I become a doctor like my parents want me to or figure out what I want to do?” “should I commit to this monogamous relationship like my partner wants me to even though I can’t see a future for us?,” the question you are really asking is whether to act in accordance with your own wishes or to cede to some other pressure or authority.
The first answer may make more sense than the second: everyone likes freedom, right? The advertising industry knows this, knows the pull that the promise of freedom has on people. Slogans like “Be yourself,” “Experience freedom,” and “Freedom is just a click away” all entice us with the idea of freedom. When we feel the slightest infringe on our freedom, we recoil. Have you ever heard really good advice and did not take it just because you didn’t come up with the idea yourself? I sure have. Does taking someone else’s advice really mean you are not free? Does it make you a robot or a slave? Can you not consider others’ advice and then make a conscious, free choice to follow it or not? Well, apparently, the modern western society is not very good at that. Research on advice-giving is not looking so hot: people don’t like it. Advice elicits defensiveness, resistance; instant walls go up. If we were so secure in our freedom, if we really embraced it fully and did not fear it, would our sense of freedom be so fragile that we have to defend it against such imagined threats as advice-taking? (because who knows what might happen if you take your mom’s advice to be more compassionate to your uncle and try not to irritate him, right? Unimaginable horrors might ensue…). It’s easy to reject advice and think to oneself, “oh, what a free and independent person I am, doing what I want and not listening to anyone else. A real pioneer of freedom, my ego is.” It’s not so easy to see when we are making a choice to follow someone else’s lead when it’s not stated explicitly as advice, when it’s portrayed as something you should want, when the cultural symbols (money, augmented and photoshopped bodies, bright smiles) entice us, promise us that enough money, power, fame, sex, or romantic love will finally fill that void and there is no need to create your own meaning in life: it is prepackaged, shiny, pretty, and comes with your latest edition smart phone. “Freedom is just a click away.”
Why are we afraid of freedom then? Why is our relationship with freedom like an insecure, messy, narcissistic, de-empathic liaison between two teenagers who are just dating each other as a status symbol, not to be with each other fully, genuinely? Existential psychology would say that it is because freedom comes with responsibility and that is the part we do not want. Responsibility. Accountability. Scary stuff. As a society, postmodern western civilizations often display a peculiarly infantile wish for freedom with no responsibility, “I do what I want, damn the world.” This is what babies do. No joke. For babies, that behaviour makes sense, but what about adults? This saying is also not as genius as it may seem. Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, many others have predicted it more than a century ago. They called it nihilism: embracing only one side of freedom, with a blatant disregard for the consequences of your actions, for responsibility.
Erich Fromm also writes that giving up our responsibility can give us a sense of security. If we chose to give up freedom, to follow someone else’s expectations for life, to have a baby, buy a house, build a career because that is what you are “supposed to do,” then we conveniently escape blaming ourselves if our life is not to our liking. Then, when the midlife crisis comes, it is time to blame others – society, parents, world, for pressuring you into a life you did not want. Except that this does not work. If your life is not what you want it to be, most people still tend to blame ourselves, even if we blame others, too. We do this because we cannot escape the gnawing sense of responsibility, even if it’s just a tiny little voice inside our mind.
Existential philosophy by no means says that you are responsible for everything that happens to you. Obviously, there are things in the world beyond our control. We do not have infinite choices. But among the limited choices we have in our life due to our particular financial situation, our self-awareness, our beliefs, we are still capable of free choice. Erich Fromm warns that when too many people in a society give up that choice, when too many people choose the false security of being a follower and abandoning a search for your own meaning, when we buy those prepackaged life meanings, the entire society becomes ill. It manifests itself as high rates of mental health problems, like depression and anxiety (check), rise in narcissism in the young generations (check), and increased isolation (check). The last one is particularly interesting because people spend more time alone now, in an age of perma-connection via phones and social networking, then when all of this technology was not available.
When we embrace freedom, we may initially lose some sense of security, like a young person venturing out of the parents’ home on their own for the very first time. But the initial loss of security is essential for growing up, maturing, and becoming your own person. Embracing freedom means building that security within yourself so that you may have relationships with others, but not depend on them to make all your life decisions for you. Embracing freedom and responsibility means knowing yourself vs. just living with a vague sense that your life is just not quite right. It means when your life is not what you want it to be, you can acknowledge what you can control, what you cannot, and how you can move towards a more fulfilling life that makes the best of the choices you have available. No false security can give any of those things to you. False securities are anesthetics – they kill pain and boredom, but make you feel unable to feel anything else either – not the genuine connection with another person, not a sense of genuine pride in yourself. You can choose to live your life hooked on psychological pain killers or you can choose a fuller range of experiences, both the difficult and the joyous.
Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom, 1941.
David Loy, Lack and Transcendence: The Problem of Death and Life in Psychotherapy, Existentialism, and Buddhism, 2000.
McPherson, M., Brashears, M. E., & Smith-Lovin, L. (2006). Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades. American Sociological Review, 71(3), 353-375. doi:10.1177/000312240607100301
Murphy, J. M., Laird, N. M., Monson, R. R., Sobol, A. M., & Leighton, A. H. (2000). Incidence of depression in the Stirling County Study: Historical and comparative perspectives. Psychological Medicine, 30(3), 505-514. doi:10.1017/S0033291799002044
Twenge, J. M., Konrath, S., Foster, J. D., Campbell, W., & Bushman, B. J. (2008). Further evidence of an increase in narcissism among college students. Journal Of Personality, 76(4), 919-928. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.2008.00509.x