Freedom is Determined by Your Definition of Shackles
What we expect from people is largely influenced by what we experience from people. Does this encourage us to make a society into a mechanism of mass delusion?
Freedom. It’s a seductive idea, that we are in fact entirely in charge of our actions. That we as individuals, can pick and choose what to do, what to think, what to feel, every day of our lives. It’s an idea we hold onto, that we are in some way equal to anyone else, if we choose to be, at any given moment. It is something we are entitled to, whether it is a birthright, or something to fight for, we believe that we can have it. Freedom is an illusion.
We love the feeling of freedom, just like we love being powerful, masters of our domain, and bodies. Except we can never be truly free. We are always bound by our limitations, our requirements to continue to live, and our self-imposed limitations courtesy of fear. Some of this is born in us, these indescribable latent tendencies, but some of it is nurtured when we are youngest. What happens after is really up to us.
In the beginning
When we are babies, we are entirely selfish, we cry to let the world know we are uncomfortable, and expect the world (aka mommy) to make it right. There’s not even a hint of understanding that we don’t control the world. Some toddlers even learn to maximize their control, expertly manipulating their parents, further reinforcing this apparent truth. Because how we feel is given immense importance. I have to wonder, how much these early years contribute to someone becoming manipulative later in life.
Approaching 1 years old, a baby starts to connect what their nerves feel, with what they see. Piecing together the clues, they realize it isn’t just a feeling in their hand, it is actually their hand feeling. Watching this fascination with their flailing limbs, giving way to implicit understanding of who’s controlling them, encourages them to experiment. Control becomes important. This is when they start testing what they can do with this understanding; when crawling stops being ambitious enough, and when the impossibility of stairs becomes impossibly irresistible. By 2 years old, there’s no stopping them.
This is also the age when they really pay attention to themselves. When pain from a cut or scraped knee becomes a hugely important thing in life. They already got used to observing themselves from within, now they get used to observing themselves externally. How it works becomes unimportant, but the fact that it works the way they think, is made a priority.
Consequently, they also start to understand how mirrors work. After the initial mysticism wears off, they start to treat it like a surrogate reality, and will even converse with someone elses reflection. Oddly, kittens seem to grasp this concept sooner, but this could be a matter of scale. Human mirrors are much more profound to something a few inches tall, it can take up their entire field of view.
After reaching about 3-4 years old, a child starts to develop a kind of awareness of self, collectively named the Theory of Mind. They start to learn that what they know or see, isn’t necessarily what everyone else knows or sees. This is the beginning of abstract thinking, where truth is no longer homogenous, where the obvious becomes subjective. A development that some people seem to resist later in life.
The next phase involves the development of an Ego. Which can be synonymous with self-esteem, and depending how it develops, it can either balance their earlier expectation of omnipotence, or enhance it. The typical child won’t have much of an Ego at first, this makes them shy, and very susceptible to intimidation, and shame. This is when a child needs to be nurtured creatively, to give them confidence in their own opinions, or feelings, without becoming overbearing.
It’s very easy to go down the road of entitlement, and make them into a brat.
The Ego as a gatekeeper
Imagine your brain as a gated community, full of diverse individuals, each living separated, but adjacent. Each individual can communicate with others, some of them like to get together often, some barely ever talk. There are the abstract artisans on one side of the road, with critical thinkers on the other. Some are aloof, some take themselves far too seriously. And once in a while, they even have a leader.
In this scenario, the mind is portrayed as a diverse group of inhabitants, that form committees to decide things, like whether to scratch that itch, or to deduce that someone has lied. They all have their own interests, so not all of them vote on every topic. Which can sometimes lead to contradictory conclusions, like enjoying something, and feeling guilty about it. Though some might be more dominant than others, the strength of each can change over time, or even change as other specialists get involved. Much like corroborating witnesses (ie. evidence) at a trial.
As inefficient as this seems, we encourage this division of specialty. It gives us more parallelism in processing what goes on outside of us, and even gives us the ability to dream or invent, when some of them are idle. It also allows us to speed up critical tasks, without burdening the same committees every time. We can process what’s going on with an assailant, while we monitor our body position, while crafting an appropriate response, and then issuing orders to move simultaneously. There are definite advantages.
Another benefit to this division, is the ability to weigh seemingly unrelated factors on a Lady Justice type scale, and reach very complicated, or nuanced conclusions. Although, there are people who prefer to reject anything complicated, and merely focus on the simplest ones. Some upstanding, impartial, community member must ultimately be in charge, like a presiding Judge right? Some might think therefore, that the Ego is kind of like the spiritual leader to the mind, the alphadog if you will, but it’s much more subtle.
Anyone who’s paid close attention to when people get defensive would know, the Ego as we know it, isn’t always present, or at least not in charge of the proceedings. The Ego has to be spurred to life, and then interferes with both the input and output of the mind, like when someone is insulted. The Ego stands up and yells “Hey! You can’t do that!” before cutting off communication with the logical mind. Which is why you have to wait until they cool off, or disarm someone’s Ego, or never even triggering it preferably, if you ever want to influence their decision making.
The Ego isn’t a character, as much as a lens. It controls what comes out, either by limiting what’s said, or altering the way it’s said, which also includes body language. It also dictates what facts or observations are passed along to the various committees in charge of processing them. Often it will even recombine snippets of the data, or discard information altogether, in the quest to shield the mind. Therefore, you could view the Ego as the embodiment of self-interest.
Though this autonomy makes it a slippery fish, some people have learned to harness it as a power source, by instigating situations that make it flare up. Like deliberately picking a fight with strangers. For example, insulting someone who wasn’t a threat, with the explicit intention of being insulted right back; which would trigger the defense mechanism. From this they get a headrush of invincible anger, while their Ego quashes their ability to acknowledge fear and compassion. In this way, it’s more like a set of rules we’ve adopted, with reactions that we can predict.
This is necessary because the Ego isn’t in charge of creating emotions, maybe it can fuel anger by filtering out any sympathy, but it can’t create the whirlwind of chemicals like anger out of nothing. It only has the power to influence what the rest of the mind processes, altering the premises that decisions are based on. The logical mind can bypass this limitation, by effectively creating false “threats” to deal with. This trigger those core emotions, and powers the Ego.
One of it’s worst effects, is placing boundaries between the various specialist areas of the mind, which would be more adept with dealing with the situation at hand. It’s like declaring martial law on the inhabitants of the gated community. Everyone goes home and peeks out their windows, waiting for the all clear signal. All logic gets sequestered, and only the emotions are allowed to run free. Those savages. Perhaps that’s why we are so convinced that the Ego is us, it is so well integrated into who we are.
Of course the opposite, is when our Ego “abandons” us. When we suddenly lose that air of invincibility. When we regain our comprehension of fear, or become cognizant of our weaknesses again, we feel the effect of low self-esteem. The high from our drug has worn off, leaving us feeling lost or inadequate. Our boundless energy (or enthusiasm) seems to have been turned off. There are people that go through their entire lives feeling like this. Self-esteem is therefore a measure of the strength of one’s Ego.
We are not our Ego, anymore than red is an apple.
Why we aren’t really ourselves
I’ve spent a long time studying people, I was always fascinated by people’s thought processes, not so much their feelings. Feelings lead to thoughts, so by understanding the thoughts, you can trace their lineage back to what people feel. As such, I’ve had a non-judgmental approach to everyone, playing relationship counselor came easy, and from what I can tell, I’ve actually helped make a difference.
I’ve focused on modeling people, much like you can make an orrery, or a machine to predict the movements of our solar system. Predicting people is far more useful than categorizing them, which is my main beef with clinical psychology. This incessant need to divide traits into components, then by virtue of which sub-traits a person exhibits, lump them into a particular group. To me this is like chopping up various vegetables, and depending on composition ratios, categorizing them as a particular salad, completely ignoring the characteristics of the vegetables in the first place.
There’s one thing that always struck me though, how people seem to be less aware of themselves, than others are aware of them. It’s a little like selective amnesia. Where someone is surprised at how they feel when meeting someone they pretend not to like, or that they might be shocked to learn they drank 2 bottles of wine watching a sappy movie. What’s going on exactly? How do people “forget” themselves, and their own habits, so completely? Is our absent-minded view of ourselves the lazy option? Is it a cheap substitute for the Ego that uses too much energy?
I think on some level we want to be comfortable, which is difficult when we are insecure, and this is possibly the key to understanding why. If we ignore our flaws in a time of crisis, things could get ugly very quickly, but most of our lives aren’t in crisis mode, and we can choose to avoid the issue. We can turn our attention to pleasant things, and pretend our weaknesses never existed, pretend they have no power over us, while they lie dormant. Ironically, this makes understanding people really only possible in the presence of stresses, or drunk, when their true self has to surface.
Now if people go through their entire adult lives pretending, the consequence is that they are also not growing. You can’t master your fear if you run away from it, nor do you increase your strength of will, by avoiding tough choices. Our psychological muscles need to be fed well, and exercised regularly, just like our bodies. There’s really nothing like a good crisis to figure out what you’re made of, what you’re capable of, and to realize how silly most of your preconceptions are. A crisis forces you to stop pretending, because you can’t make excuses to a hurricane, and your sense of entitlement won’t save you from an armed robbery.
Sometimes we need our illusions to be destroyed, to take a good look inside. More than that, it gives us the moral freedom to re-evaluate our lives, without all the previous brainwashing getting in the way. We can step out of our comfy shells, cast off that veneer of pretense, and do what we need to do.
And we just might have a surprise meeting with ourselves.
Much of the challenge of living out the person you are comes from society. People have been telling you “no” your whole life, how do you overcome that? You can’t be here, you can’t do that, etc. The moral pressures we face as people in organized society, in some ways forces us to be dishonest, although some people take it a step further.
A virile man can excuse himself from his friends to “go see about a girl” without objections, but if a girl was to abandon her cadre of Amazonians to “see about a guy”, there would be fireworks, and labels of “slut” would soon follow. Wouldn’t life be simpler if you could say what’s on your mind? Instead of pretending you like that wool sweater you got for Christmas, you could tell the giver that you can’t stand wool, and offer suggestions for next time.
While on the surface this seems cruel, or even unappreciative, it doesn’t have to be mean spirited, just a statement of fact. Then by letting someone know what is (or isn’t) appealing to you, you have freed them from the responsibility of having to guess what’s on your mind. There are efficiencies to be had with honesty, because honesty in itself is not personal, nor should stating your point of view constitute an attack, especially when there was no malicious intent.
In many cases, gift giving involves a huge emotional investment, where people are awaiting acceptance of their gift, with intense trepidation and doubt. The giver expects to be judged on their choice, even if the mere effort should be enough. If a gift is received with a pretense of happiness, this in itself can trigger an internal battle within the giver. They will probably know it’s not genuine happiness, but they may use some selective amnesia to protect their fragile innards from the truth, by pretending that it was genuine anyway. Lies upon lies.
This happens far too often in life. A perfunctory transaction becomes an intense burden, a burden outweighing the benefits of the transaction in rare cases, mitigated only by self-deception. You probably know people that are so deathly afraid of confrontation, that they eschew doing anything overtly or publicly. Instead they choose to send letters through an impersonal mailing system, or ask disinterested parties to inquire on their behalf. It’s kind of like being in a mental prison isn’t it?
There are times, when the best thing to do, is to discard conventions. Give up on your expectations, or stop viewing them as important. If you can see through an activity, to it’s core essence, you’ll likely find it’s pretty small. Much smaller than it seemed, when it was still wrapped in layers of dogma, and hyperbole.
There’s a simple correlation about deception, the more honest you are, the more you appreciate honesty, and vice versa. In fact, by opening up to the truth, you wouldn’t be so hurt when others gave you a taste. As an honest person, you might feel energized by seeing some gusto in a friend or acquaintance, even giggle a bit as they are tearing down what they see as your illusions. It would no longer be a nerve-racking experience to communicate. You could stop trying to decipher the hidden feelings between every word, and focus on the message, couldn’t you?
You might even feel liberated by it.
Reviving your natural state
Perhaps the best thing is to break it down into a series of milestones. Understand the progression of our captivity. I think everyone would agree, you can’t solve a problem, if you don’t understand the problem. Then maybe we can understand when we lost our freedom, or how we stopped feeling free, and possibly how to reverse the effect.
What was the turning point, between viewing the world as a wondrous place, and viewing it as a museum we can see, but not touch? Think back to the major events in your life, the ones that shaped who you are, then realize there’s hundreds more little nudges, which you can’t recall.
- Parenting – As well meaning as parents are, they have been shaped by a lifetime of drama, rejection, hopes and fears. It’s no wonder that as generations grow longer, as parents are choosing to have children into their 30’s and beyond, that the cynicism of parenting grows. This negativity infects children in the most dastardly way, and makes parents intolerant of normal, but crucial, childish activities. If we try to force children to conform too early, doesn’t that just make us wardens of minor league prison population?
- Uneducation – Being in school is supposed to be practice for real life, sadly the only lesson they want you to learn, is obedience. Children are taught to be quiet, ask permission, do as they are told, be where they are told, when they are told. It’s not bad enough that parents tell kids to stop being kids, school teaches them that they can never really do what they want, while propagating the myth of freedom at age 18. Just so that kids see light at the end of their dark tunnel. Except at 18, they are told, true freedom happens after college/university at 25. Then the real world snatches away the promised freedom with a career.
- Dishonesty – Fitting in is hard to do, and doubly so when society seems to act like a noose, slowly squeezing the life out of the inhabitants. We are so afraid of being judged, that we often keep our mouths shut, when we should loudly challenge the lies we are fed. As children, we should be raised to stand up against our accusers, and we should be judged as natural humans, not against the fantasy people we portray. Except we aren’t. We feel like we’re held to a double standard, which we are, breaking us down, splinter by splinter.
- Insecurity – We all have some unquenchable hope buried within us, but it’s surrounded by layers of fear, mostly generated by losing perspective. We are bombarded by the news, telling us how many children are abducted, how many people are killed, and how tainted our unregulated food industry is becoming. It makes parents panic, it gives children an overdose of stress hormones. We are raising each generation to feel more paranoid than the last one.
- Inequality – We all inherently believe in fairness, justice, and equality, yet have none of these things. Meritocracy is a lie, spread by capitalists to encourage obedience. Fairness never existed, not really, and never will. Realizing this can be very depressing. Entire generations are raised with the expectation of a good life turned sour, where the best they should hope for is to be able to tread water. Meanwhile carrots are dangled in front of us, forcing us to work harder, just to maintain what we have. The freedom we fought for yesterday, might not be available tomorrow.
- Policing – We feel pressured everyday, to fit into our roles, to fit expectations for work, or gender, and not to rock the boat if we don’t. The entire police system is setup to keep order, not serve justice. Their primary role, is to stop anyone who dares to step out of the category they belong to, who dares to be different. They figuratively lop the heads off of anyone who stands out of a huddling crowd. Forcing people to work within the system, to change it as slightly as possible, virtually guarantees great social progress can’t happen. We become their unpredictable inmates.
- Time – As the rat race makes us busy, it also disconnects us from being human. It replaces our natural curiosity, with urgency. No one has time to contemplate life, if life is an endless series of homework assignments, due yesterday. Self-employment is risky, and even more taxing. Entrepreneurialism is the only way to achieve any measure of success, if measured in free time. But business is fraught with legal dangers, with big corporations seeking to crush, or swallow their competition. Of course school never teaches people how to be different, it never teaches people how to start their own businesses, and doesn’t teach people personal finance skills. Success is an uphill battle, it almost makes you long for the simplicity of prison, with 3 cubicle walls.
- Limitless options – The burden of responsibility to make the best choices, can also crush us. Our freedom to choose, falls down when we have too much choice. We are paralyzed by things that don’t matter, losing our focus from the things that do. Parts of the world can barely eat, or even buy fresh groceries, but meanwhile in the West, we are relatively immobilized choosing between organic and regular. We get distracted to the point, where we wish someone would make the choices for us, and someone obligingly will; usually without our best interests in mind. Day after day, we abdicate decision making, just so we can blame someone else for their poor choices, instead of ours.
As we can see there’s two obvious problems, we lose our sense of freedom bit by bit, every day, and society discourages us from fighting to reclaim it. How many times did we have to hear “no” before we resigned ourselves to it? When did it become OK to stifle humanity? Maybe we did it to ourselves, convinced it was necessary, or maybe we allowed others to do it to us, while we looked the other way. If we are enslaved by ideas, then to make any real progress, it’s going to take new ideas to free us.
“The world that we have made as a result of the level of thinking that we have done so far, has created problems we cannot solve at the level of thinking at which we created them . . . . We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if humankind is to survive.”
– Albert Einstein
A scary, world changing evolution, of our point of view.
I don’t know when we stopped believing it was possible to change our world, I don’t know who convinced us, and it really isn’t important. Changing the world is difficult, but changing ourselves is relatively easy, and by doing that, we change the world. What’s important is to start believing in ourselves again, to feel like “free” people again. If we are slaves, and our highest ambition is to be the highest paid slaves, our response will be to do nothing. If we want to be free however, and we need to fight to remain so, we will act.
There are powerful political and economic forces that would prefer we stayed inactive, but we can overcome those forces if we choose to. It’s going to take a lot of lost souls to come together, to fight together, to push for change. We need a common purpose, a rallying cry. But we can’t do that if we are all divided, and hopeless. We can’t organize into a powerful voice, if we’re too afraid of the consequences of speaking out. This is exactly what those would-be overlords want.
The first step to freeing your mind, is to accept the things you cannot change. Why fight the inevitable things, like change, or death? There’s so much that we do have the power to change. If we view the impossible things as our ball and chain, we can never overcome them, we can never feel free ever again. Therefore the quest for freedom starts by channeling our considerable energies to where they count.
We all need air to breathe, we all need food to eat, we all need to be loved, and we can’t change that. If we trudge through every day, feeling like we’ve lost hope, because we haven’t found what we want, we create our own prison. If we believe that we are small, insignificant specks on a blue dot in space, we won’t even try to see past the walls of our prison. We need to move beyond the infinite, to be in awe of it, but not afraid of it. The circumstances we are born into, weren’t of our choosing. Our starting position in life, was decided entirely by chance, as is our finish line. We only have control over how we run the marathon.
Once we stop seeing life as an obstacle, we can embrace the change. Wise men have said, we can only have power over something if we focus on it. The danger is that, by paying attention to some things, like negativity, we give them power over us too. So what if we use our selective amnesia not to create comfort, but to block out the things that cause us to seek comfort? There’s something viscerally thrilling about a struggle, don’t shy away from it.
We should see comfort as stagnation, as procrastination towards the future. The longer we stay still, remain unchanged, the deeper we sink into the quicksand of time. We are born to run, to create, to invent, to achieve all the things our ancestors dreamed of. We should be insulted when we hear “you can’t do that!”, not give up trying.
Should we confine ourselves to finite realities, as those defined by the fearful? Should we tolerate the constraints of politeness, when it hides the truth from us? Should we accept oppression as a normal part of life? Even if we agree to those, what excuse do we have for locking ourselves away in our own minds?
The solution may lie in redefining what limits us, to change the meaning of shackles to guidelines. To conclude that we really don’t fully understand the consequences of our actions, at least not from all points of view. Yet none of this should discourage us from trying, to explore the world, to play, to be silly, and to question everything. If children can play games in a warzone, surely we can find a way.
Abstract concepts like freedom may never be absolutes, but we can certainly live by them.