Freedom: “the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants.”
It is having an ability to act or change without constraint. A thing is “free” if it can change its state easily and is not constrained in its present state. In philosophy and religion, it is associated with having free will and being without undue or unjust constraints, or enslavement, and is an idea closely related to the concept of liberty.
I sit here just after celebrating 24 years of freedom from Apartheid; pondering this word “freedom” and what it means to all of us. It’s becoming too lazy to quote Nelson Mandela. It’s almost as if our icons of freedom have become beacons to whom we hand the responsibility for our freedom.
So what is freedom? Typically we start by interrogating what the definition of freedom is. However, that becomes academic and very subjective. Instead, how about looking at where freedom exists. Viktor Frankl and Nelson Mandela and countless other heroes and heroines showed us that freedom exists within ourselves.
Freedom exists as an internal state that can be expansive, exhilarating and inspiring even under the most difficult and restrictive of circumstances.
In theory we know this for dire circumstances and we know that we can draw on this to inspire us. However it’s in the day-to-day grind that we slowly fall asleep and enslave ourselves.
I challenge you to look at your life; where you suffer conformity, suppression, despondency, resignation and mediocrity – these are signs of a lack of freedom and being imprisoned within your own life.
“Conformity is the jailer of freedom, and the enemy of growth.” John F. Kennedy
The drudgery of waking up, going to work, fitting in, pleasing others, making ends meet, going home, sleeping and then repeating day in and day out becomes an emotional prison that robs us of internal freedom. By choosing to conform to society’s expectations and corruption of the human spirit drains us.
Four ways that this happens consistently for most people is:
Working in a compromising environment. This happens in a number of ways. Either we sign-up for something that doesn’t value us and feed our spirit, or we have work that values us, but we do it for the wrong reasons. These reasons could be that we simply need the salary to survive, or we seek the recognition and status. Or we took on the role not valuing ourselves and settled for less than we should. Another compromise we make to ourselves is working in a toxic environment that contradicts our values and beliefs, or makes us feel that we need to be different than we are, for approval.
If any of this resonates with you, then you are undoubtedly feeling trapped and not free to work, deliver your best and create success. Considering that work is where you spend the greatest portion of your waking hours – this is a significant compromise and painful place to be. No freedom there.
Avoiding discomfort. Discomfort is the experience of stepping out of what is comfortable and soothing to our egos. There is nothing wrong with creating comfort in your life. But when you serve a comfortable life you will avoid conversations that make you uncomfortable, relationships that challenge you, opportunities that feel difficult. Simply put anything that stretches you out of your comfort zone. What this translates into is inertia and a static life that experiences no growth.
You can have all of the measures of success: a beautiful family, friendships, material possessions, and lifestyle. But there will be a nagging sense of lack. And in your quieter moments a gnawing need to break free.
What many are unaware of is that other than having a part of us that seeks to avoid anything that sniffs of discomfort and even pain, there is another that requires us to be our best, grow and evolve.
It is what LIVING intends for us, and this half of us is our Highest Self, or Soul. That part of us will experience being enslaved by the comfort and avoidance of life’s tough lessons. This is the comatose experience of watching our days pass as our life winds down. No freedom in that!
Buying into the world’s Bulls*t. Is there bad news? Yes! Do awful things happen around the world? Without any argument, yes! Is it our duty to inform ourselves and arm ourselves with knowledge to make a difference? Categorically, YES!
The problem is that we have become addicted to the drama. We allow the emotive manipulation of the truth into reactive blaming. This serves no-one and causes no solution. While we buy into the negative narrative we are the problem. Imagine a house is burning down and the only witness is running in circles, hands on his head shouting “FIRE”.
More than anything though, this feeds pain and suffering in us and because we don’t like that, we numb it out and imprison ourselves in negativity, gloom and slide into depression. This is oppressive and is the solitary confinement of despondency. Zero freedom there.
Staying in reaction. You know that our ego’s LOOOVE to be right and stay on our high-horse; proving that we’re right. We relish the opportunity of payback and winning one over another. Especially those that have wronged or taken from us. So any time something triggers or offends us we react, and keep ourselves in reaction just for the chance to get that vengeance we seek (however subtle). There is no freedom here. You choosing to keep yourself in reaction, keeps you a victim to a wound that healed long ago. You remain a prisoner to your own drama.
All of the above speaks to us not being real. It is us struggling to survive either materially, financially or psychologically. The greatest thief of freedom is our need to defend our opinions, status, beliefs and “rightness”. By doing this, we ignore or corrupt our values. We allow our weaker selves dominate our Highest Selves.
Voltaire said “It’s difficult to free fools from the chains that they revere.”
If you see yourself in any of the above patterns and recognise the need to create some space to breathe, expand and break free in your life – then I have three simple steps to offer you that can unlock the internal state of freedom, under all circumstances, any time you engage with the steps.
Step 1: Identify your Values. If you know what your True North is, you know in which direction to point yourself. I suggest a brainstorming exercise in listing bullet-point style everything that you find important. What do you find yourself speaking about constantly, and also what do you find yourself doing in your spare time (and what principals underlie these). These probably represent a version of what you value.
Once you have exhausted all ideas, then whittle that down to a list of no more than 5 core values that summarise and represent what is most important to you.
Step 2: Live your values. The reality is that you have the life that you have. Warts and all. You have the relationships that you do, and job that you do, and the lifestyle that you do.
Now take your identified core values and use these as your guiding light within the life that you have. Every decision that you make, everything that you communicate is informed by these values. They are your default reference point, using the questions “Does this (action / decision / conversation etc. ) align with my values?” If not, “How can I adjust so that it does?” or “What is needed of me now so that I do align this to my values?” This keeps you focussed on your Highest Self, on your greatest potential. Will it be difficult and uncomfortable at times? No doubt. But it will be a liberating and ecstatic expression of you and your fullest potential.
Step 3: Choose Joy. Under all circumstances, you can choose to serve suffering, unhappiness, discontent and misery. You can continue to buy into the drama and perpetuate the bad news perspective. Be the guy screaming “FIRE”. Or you can choose to experience life differently. You can choose joy as a perspective, as a context. Through this context you can approach the same challenges, problems and pain in the world – but as an ambassador for something different.
These three steps unlock a state of freedom inside you that allows a full, and rich life. Of course not without challenges or struggle. But a life where internally you are free in your experience of the struggles that show up.
I believe that this is the essence of what Viktor Frankl and Nelson Mandela and Mother Theresa and Life and God had in mind for us. Freedom.