Too much freedom?

Below is a thought experiment, a book review, a lament, and a hopeful conversation, all rolled into one. If you enjoy it, you might also enjoy a lovely poem by the poet Ellen Fishbein, on the same topic.

Rollo May.

Rollo May, a psychotherapist and a writer, wrote many books during his lifetime, one of which is Freedom and Destiny. The central theme in the book, as the title suggests, is the definition and the relationship between freedom and destiny.

“Freedom is the capacity to pause in the face of stimuli from many directions at once and, in this pause, to throw one’s weight toward this response rather than that one.”

Destiny, on the other hand, May defines as the set of circumstances that serve as constraints on our abilities and possibilities. The conditions, genes, and environments we’re born into and have no control over.

This is where May sees and introduces the purpose of destiny — to impose (or bestow, depends how one looks at it) on us a set of circumstances that constrain choice. The late physicist Stephen Hawking is one such example. Affected by an early onset of ALS, he had spent the remainder of his life as a prisoner in a failing body. His was an extreme constraint he had to learn to live and work around as best as possible, which he did to great effect. Accepting that it does him no good to hope for a different body, he was free to direct all his considerable intellect to mental pursuits.

Would he have, retrospectively, opted out of having ALS? Probably, and with every right. But, since he did have it, the only choice left to him was either to accept the condition, as best as humanly possible, or allow it to become the central focus of his life, to the detriment of all else — even physics.

“If you are disabled, it is probably not your fault, but it is no good blaming the world or expecting it to take pity on you […] In my opinion, one should concentrate on activities in which one’s physical disability will not present a serious handicap.” Stephen Hawking

Similarly, we’re all born into some circumstances that are beyond our ability to change. How we take these constraints, according to May, directly affects personal freedom. Having myself been born with a relatively benign spine deformation, I have seen first hand how my attitude toward the condition affects my life more than the condition itself. Whenever I’d set out to deny the condition, out of sheer spite, I’d slam into a very painful wall. More than that, I’d rob myself of much energy and effort that could have been better spent invested in areas where I am not constrained whatsoever.

Having ALS or any other disease is an example of an involuntary narrowing of choice, but the same effect can be produced artificially. Igor Stravinsky, a well-known composer, maintained that the more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self. That’s why photographers, when facing a creative block, go out on the street and invent a constraint, choosing to only photograph things that are red or blue. This effectively erases the creative block, which normally arises when one doesn’t know where to start. It erases some of the many options available, providing focus, just as Hawking’s involuntary condition affected his mental excursions. Here I do not mean to make light of ALS — the point is entirely in arguing that constraints can serve as more than just obstacles on the way.

They can show the way.

This can be exceedingly difficult to accept, as became evident in 1971 in Copenhagen, where an alternative movement sought to establish a self-governing entity free from the constraints and failures of society. They called it Freetown Christiania and issued an open invite to anyone who wanted to exit the rat race and find a better way to live. The emphasis was on creativity, spirituality, acceptance and, above all else, freedom to do anything one wants, without constraint and without consequence. It turned out, however, that constraints and consequences are more than just chains on our feet — they are teachers.

What do you do when all options are always on the table? In Christiania, drugs and opiates turned out to be the answer. Cocaine, speed, cannabis, hash, heroin, alcohol, LSD, and mescaline became the mirage of utter freedom, a bastardization of it. To be free seemed to mean no more than satisfying every whim and impulse. The children of the first Christianites bore the brunt of the experiment — they watched their parents waste away in a haze of drugs, unwilling to shoulder the responsibility neither for themselves nor for their offspring. Out of a noble desire to challenge the establishment, Christianites went too far in their pursuit of freedom, allowing it to fester at the expense of all else. In the end, they became as aimless as the leaves in the wind, which is the core of May’s argument.

Freedom and destiny (constraints) cannot exist without one another. Before intentional, focused freedom can arise, we must accept life’s givens: all the shortcomings, circumstances, and ailments that are beyond our ability to change.

Only then are we free to exercise freedom.

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