For Americans, there is perhaps nothing more defining and nothing more important than the concept of freedom. It is in our political system as democracy and our economic system as capitalism. Freedom is a staple in our songs and our conversations.
All of this informs the way we view our identity, not just as a nation, but as individuals. We want to be free, in every sense of the word. We buck against being controlled or censored.
The problem is that the concept of freedom is more complicated than we think. The truth is that we have made a mess of freedom. We now think of freedom as me doing anything I want, avoiding all consequences, offended at every disagreement, and entitled to have people and circumstances conform to my way. In a case of tragic irony, we’ve developed a victim mentality around our concept of freedom.
The first thing we overlook when we contemplate freedom is the fact that the biggest threat to it is our own self. We are trapped within our minds. We cannot escape this one tiny human soul we’ve been given. And that is both the most beautiful and most destructive reality of existence.
Our self (the Bible might say “flesh”, psychology might say “ego”, pop-culture might say “arrogance”) tries to keep us trapped within ourselves. It tries to shackle us. The primary focus of the ego is self-preservation. It does not want to risk, to grow, to share. It wants to validate, secure, and defend. And while the ego certainly does good work and part of its posture is a necessary one of security and self-expression, it also has its limits.
When we consider freedom, we fail to realize that we are our own greatest oppressor. When we cut ourselves off to the ideas and positive influence of others, we shackle ourselves to the limits of our own perceptions and biases. The prevailing wisdom of this world is that internal shackles are acceptable but external ones are not.
This is why we are becoming more and more bankrupt as people of character. We spend our whole lives justifying our own imperfections and angry at the imperfections of others. We pour into addictions and apathy, self-harm and acts of violence. We tend to think that if we are oppressors, we cannot be oppressed. Which, of course, is a frightening posture.
We lock our shackles from the inside, limiting our perspective, fighting against opportunities for growth, avoiding pain at all costs. We blame everyone and everything around us for the way things are. We own nothing; not our own emotions or ability to steward influence or the consequences of our own actions. In the end, we live inside these increasingly violent cages of our own egos.
A Strange Solution
The counter-intuitive solution is to set boundaries for ourselves. To take ownership of the life we are living. Self-restraint is an avenue to vibrant living in all areas of life. We don’t eat everything we want all the time because it would ruin our health. Setting boundaries and taking responsibility for consequences feels like we are stifling freedom. But the reality is it is the quickest way to access freedom.
Because freedom is not doing anything we want. This negates the threat of internal shackles. And we are experts at self-deception, so our ability to truly name what we want is elusive. Freedom is about the complicated journey of finding what is truly best for us. Boundaries in relationships and personal attitudes are just as important as they are in healthy eating. The longer we try to avoid consequences and shuck boundaries in the name of freedom, the further from true freedom we drift.
Because freedom is peace. It is joy. It is the ability to live unhindered by the negative consequences of wrong-doing and wrong-thinking. As counter-intuitive as it seems, we find what is right by setting boundaries for ourselves.