The Other Side of Freedom

Is the freedom we have in the West to do as we please, to make enough money to distance ourselves from our families, to have fewer and fewer challenges to our comfort and our control over our lives, really freedom?
peter kang other side of freedom.jpg

Image by Peter Kang / Unsplash

 In the decade that I've been speaking and writing about the movement known as voluntary simplicity, downshifting or sustainable consumption, I've alternately encouraged, supported, and goaded many people's emergence into greater freedom. As they've come to realize that they were not trapped, but had choices about their lives, these people have changed houses, jobs, eating habits, spiritual practices, even visions for the future.

As I've witnessed this process, I've become aware of my own passion for freedom. I've nosed along the trail of freedom since I was very young, keen to openings where something fresh might blow in and swirl out musty ideas or now-dead routines. For some people, establishing a routine provides freedom, but my own life has been a series of ruptures of the ordinary to re-experience the extraordinary. Then one day I picked up the phone and heard the voice of a man I know to be a fellow culture disturber.

Our conversation transformed my personal quest for freedom into a much bigger inquiry.

“I've reached financial independence,” he announced. He'd been following the program in Your Money or Your Life; Transforming your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence, a step-by-step technique for money management that leads to increased savings and increased quality of life. I launched on a string of enthusiastic congratulations until I sensed that something was wrong.

“You don't understand,” he said, “I'm scared to death. I don't know what to do with all this freedom.”

If this man, creative and resourceful as he is, was pitched into an existential sea by liberating his time from paid employment, what do others really think and feel about 360 degrees of freedom?

We say we live in a free country. We defend certain freedoms vociferously, yet when offered a choice of exiting the cage of convention, convenience, and a comfortable routine, we hesitate.

Why? In pursuing this question, I've found myself attracted to the idea of writing another book, a choice I never suspected I'd make again. In part, this comes from interacting with thousands of people who are inspired by the program in Your Money or Your Life to change something in their way of living to accommodate a few more degrees of freedom. I am always moved by their willingness to venture into new territory, but also notice that many choose not to follow the whole path the book lays out.

I began to wonder whether people were discouraged from leaving the known because they can't imagine what they might do if their lives were not constrained solely by economic choices.

Yes, the burden of debt is driving many into reconsidering their financial lives. The speed-up of modern life is creating a cultural attraction to simplicity. The revulsion with our overly commercialized public spaces is creating resistance in many of us to the consumer culture. All this has made the frugality and simplicity movement in the US surprisingly strong. But there is more. Once we develop a taste for freedom, we might be willing to head out from the known. Indeed, this adventure of discovering how to be truly free might be the next soul-sized challenge for the restless, creative, optimistic American spirit.

As I've followed this thread I've found freedom to be a universal theme far beyond just the financial realm. As I've listened to people's reflections, I've felt as though I were worshipping at each one's inner altar, hearing stories of their finest moments and deepest yearnings.

So I want to write about freedom. No, I want to write freedom. I want to tell tales that carry the scent of freedom like a trail across a distant hill. I want to play words that sound of freedom, like the drumming of your heart in your ears when you're silent or the music you hear when none is playing. I want to tempt you into freedom, invite you into an affair of the heart that intrudes into your daily life. Because without tales from this land of freedom, we are all slaves.

Joe's story

To start, I want to tell you a little about Joe Dominguez, co-author of Your Money or Your Life and one of my cohorts in discovering what it means to be free. “Making a living” by working 40 years in the same job seemed to Joe to be like making a dying, and he wanted to pry the fingers of the economy off his neck and roam the world.

In 1969, after 10 years on Wall Street as a market analyst (and student of money madness), saving as much as he could from every paycheck, he left. He'd done the math again and again. He had enough to live well yet frugally on income from investments for the rest of his days.

When he gave notice, he was offered the lure of more money, the promise of eventual partnership, and the threat that the systems he'd developed would quickly become antiquated and useless. A weaker will might have succumbed. Joe just smiled, and left. Even when freedom is at hand, you must still claim it.

Financial freedom led to physical freedom (he traveled throughout the Western US, Canada and Mexico) and intellectual freedom (he learned new skills, from gardening and building to public speaking). He had the time and attention to increase his emotional freedom (he slipped out of the strait-jacket of entrapment in emotional reactivity) and spiritual freedom (ever greater identification with “the higher self”).

Ultimately this journey led to a desire to serve others. Joe wanted to use his freedom to widen the path he'd found into a highway for others to travel. He tried peddling freedom directly by any means possible – explaining, cajoling, confronting, anything to get people to climb down out of their tree of fear and insecurity. But people resisted his pull. They were annoyed when he pushed. Why wouldn't people leave their suffering? Joe wondered. For him, freedom was an obvious goal.

Maybe, he concluded, people choose their own prisons because they don't like the responsibilities that come with freedom. Because once you are free, you see the world as it is and you feel called to serve, to respond to the pain and confusion. He told this story to illustrate the point.

There are two jobs in the world, zoo and zoo-keeper. (“This is my story,” he'd say, “so I get to define the parameters – two jobs.”) If you are an inmate of the zoo, you get to stay in your cage with your care provided for by others. The funny thing about this zoo, though, is that the cages have no doors. At any time, you can leave your cage. But if you do, you automatically become a zookeeper. Your job is to haul around hay for bedding, clean up shit, and feed the zoo. But you are free. In fact, surrendering to being a zoo-keeper is the path to real freedom. Now it's obvious that what the zoo-keepers most want is for more of the zoo to come out of the cages and join them, but coaxing them is not that easy. Three hots and a cot (three meals a day and a place to sleep, in street slang) is mighty appealing.

Your Money or Your Life was one way he found to coax people out of their cages. There are nine easy steps you can take to handle your financial life so that you can leave your confinement and know that your personal needs will be handled. Even if you don't become financially independent, you can get out of debt and save money so your essential needs will be met if the hand that feeds you comes up empty. The more financial resilience you have – through both savings and self reliance – the better you can weather whatever Life throws your way.

Your Money or Your Life was a “how-to” for people who sensed that the conveniences and comforts of the consumer culture might actually have them caged and yearned for another kind of freedom. This freedom book is meant to whet more appetites so that the path to the cage door it describes will be walked not just by thousands but by millions. Perhaps the promise of a “free society” and a sustainable world can be realized on Earth before its too late for the real animals, plants and even cultures threatened by our unwillingness to limit our material aspirations. Financial independence, however, isn't automatically freedom, as my friend who phoned soon learned, nor is it a prerequisite to freedom.

Tasting Freedom

I sat in the living room of a philosophy teacher. There was enough comfortable furniture for half a dozen people to converse intimately, but the major feature of the room was the decor. Tapestries, statues, artifacts and books surrounded us, rich in reds and browns and age and meaning. Together we explored this word, freedom; we turned it like yet one more precious object that both delighted and mystified us.

He told of a time in his youth when he was traveling and temporarily penniless. Time passed, his fortunes hadn't turned, and his hunger became so demanding that he had to overcome the deep psychic barrier to begging. He approached an older woman in her garden and asked for food. Fear of asking, deep need, vulnerability filled his body. He watched the woman waver. He could feel the “No” headed for her lips, but then she asked, “Are you that hungry?” He nodded. He was that hungry.

Time slowed as he watched this woman struggle with her double nature. Pity fought with fear and suspicion. It played across her feature vividly. He lost interest in his own need and felt deep compassion for her predicament.

Suddenly he realized that, by his own love becoming larger than his need, he had stepped into a place of freedom. Whatever the woman said would be all right with him.

Her debate continued a few seconds more and then a gate snapped shut behind her eyes, a “No” shot out of her lips and she quickly went indoors. But he had tasted freedom, and it tasted better than food.

Eastern and Western takes on freedom

As I've traveled, I've eagerly collected stories about freedom from people of other cultures. Curiously, it wasn't until I got to Eastern Europe that anyone spoke about impinging on others as a consideration in freedom.

“I would have to think first if I was taking away someone else's freedom by asserting my own freedom” a man from Hungary told me. Will I find many Americans who consider this first, I wondered?

In fact, the further into the Eastern mind I've explored the more I've found duty and universal truth to be the focus of freedom. Americans talk about personal choice; Asians talk about spiritual law, fulfilling one's obligations.

In Sweden I took a cab to the airport. The driver was Indian. As we talked, the following tale unfolded. Twenty years earlier, when he was a young man, his father died and he became the head of his family, responsible for his mother, grandparents and younger siblings. Unable to support the whole household on what he could earn in India, he got on his bicycle and headed for Western Europe(!) The journey took two years and landed him in Sweden and in the same job he had the day he picked me up. He had never married; the Swedes couldn't accept his dark skin and, in fact, he'd never shifted his identity from Indian to Swede. He lived simply. For entertainment he read. He sent money every month to the family, but didn't accumulate enough funds to go back to see them for 14 years. Now, the last brother was about to finish school, and he was looking forward to returning home.

“People tell me, ‘You poor man' but they don't understand,” he told me. “This has all been my joy.”

Having tried to explain so often that frugality isn't deprivation, it's freedom, I could understand how this man, choosing to “do the right thing” could experience a life of joy. Yet I still have a Western mind, and, placing myself mentally in his shoes, wondered if I would have been able to frame 20 years of lonely work for a distant family as freedom.

Is the freedom we have in the West – to do as we please, to make enough money to distance ourselves from our families, to have fewer and fewer challenges to our comfort and our control over our lives – really freedom?

We are each so gifted. To give our gifts, we must become accustomed to freedom. The people in the book that's forming in my mind have a knack for this. They know, somehow, how to meet the future in the present and dance. These people are the leaven for freedom in our world. They can activate our inner yeast-yes – we all have such freeze-dried potential! – and get us bubbling. Even surrounded by a thousand “no's” the example of a free person can penetrate the fortress of resignation so many have constructed by their middle years. Doors and windows appear where there were only walls. Perhaps we will so fall in love with our own unique capacity to sing in the uni-verse, the one song, that we will choose, against all odds, again and again, to be free.

Thought starters on freedom

1. Which fears and desires cage you in?

2. What emotions do you associate with freedom? Why?

3. Are Americans as free today as they were at the birth of this country?

4. We are discovering everywhere we turn that we are a multiplying species on a planet with limits. How can we experience the exhilaration of freedom with such constraints?

5. How do limits increase or decrease freedom?

6. In your web of relationships, where do you feel encouraged to be free and where do you feel bound?

7. Think of three times when you felt free. What is common to all those experiences?

8. In what ways is freedom contextual (i.e. “a free society”) and in what ways is it a choice (i.e. an inner attitude)?

9. Imagine your destiny being controlled by outer forces not of your choosing (war, tyranny, disease, fundamentalism, violence). How would you experience and express freedom?

10. In your life, how does duty relate to freedom?

11. Ask someone to tell you about a time when they felt really free, and then share your own story of freedom.


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