Saturday, September 21, 2013
On Being Free
I have always been one for serendipity, the view that the best things in life happen unplanned. Being raised in a highly disciplined environment, which I was, the best things in life were always outside for me: It was always about being free.
This is why, perhaps, I lived the way I lived, doing various things at different points, setting off on journeys without planning out where I am going. This is why I perhaps write like this - conversationally and confusingly, veering off to different subjects and putting on different styles - leaving the structuring of thoughts and ideas to people reading it. This is what defines my politics, averse to authority and to conformity, equally ill at ease with the groupthink of the left and market-fetishism of the right. In a way, this is what makes who I am - excited about new ideas, purveyor of new opportunities, but bored with structure and set ways of doing things.
However, one question I always left unanswered is what those best things in life are. While I wanted to get outside the structure, the 'best things in life' were all defined by the structure. It is not so much about trying another way, but defying the gravitational pull of what's desirable, the values and desires of others that we all live by, makes freedom so difficult. So, my life has been a cycle of setting off for dead ends, where the inherent promise of freedom was incompatible with the intended end result: The disappointments that came on the way were obvious with the benefit of hindsight.
As I learned, I came up with another theory: That focus, the deliberate embrace of unfreedom, may be the best temporal strategy to achieve freedom. So, I put my head down and achieve certain goals, goals that, once achieved, will allow me a certain escape velocity to live a life more freely. This is suspiciously similar to a retire rich dream, but it did not appear that way. For me, it was a 'critical minimum effort', borrowing a concept from development economics, to get to a platform for free pursuit of opportunities. In the end, it was about enough money in the bank to buy a house on the hill.
But, this strategy is a myth: It does not work. This is because one can't achieve freedom through repression. This is a Freudian formula - repression as a price of civilization - but we know that the elaborate schemes to promote repression, consumer culture in the latest form, has always failed. At a personal level, this meant living someone else's life, while always dreaming to be free: This made me a perennial and incorrigible dreamer, while living a rather ordinary and orderly life. There are two, rather contradictory, problems that come with living like this: I started to treat indulgences, like buying books, as markers of freedom. They became obsessions rather than freedom, and they bound me more into the conventional bounds of desire. On the other hand, though, the pursuit of freedom within convention made me dream up grander schemes, far over-reaching the limited goals that my flirtation with conventional life was to achieve. This was an irreversible obsession too - the commonplace ideas of business and life lost its appeal to me completely, and I was fixated within this Quixotic complex of chasing the impossible bigger dreams.
It is only recently, therefore, I have started reconciling the necessity of focus with the beauty of serendipity: To do this, I had to focus on serendipity. The only way journeys to nowhere can be successful if they were intended that way: My earlier journeys to nowhere were full of milestones, so they were almost always circular and full of disappointments. My repulsion of structure stopped me from seeing that the way of freedom is not necessarily prescriptive, but deliberate. Pursuing freedom does not start with giving it up for a limited time, but rather always being free, in whichever limited way, in everyday life. And, this freedom is as much a means as an end: There is no big signboard for the territory of freedom but it is manifest in the omnipresent desire to be free. The retire rich life, the house on the hills, isn't being free: They are trophies of unfree designed to sustain the illusion for the next person on the line, and they are sustained by the lack of freedom in the life leading up to it, and even essentially thereafter. Freedom is, on the contrary, manifest in this very moment of writing this article with no clear purpose, and to no clear end, other than the joy of writing and the peace of settling the argument within myself, even at the cost of looking foolish, confused and lost.
This is a rather significant shift - from searching for a life of freedom to recognising and enjoying the episodic freedom of life, the everyday moments that make us free and happy. It is about escaping the lure of objects, because they are purely markers of a socially ordained position, and even of ideas, because they are usually socially sustained messages to constrain the individual. The true freedom, in that sense, is the momentary connection that firms between the nature and humans, often in the most serendipitous way, something that is freely available to all, regardless of education, taste or financial means: This is not about freedom to look into the river from the balcony of one's million-pound apartment, but the purely accidental joy of looking at a rainbow on the suburban sky, even if interrupted by endless airplanes cutting along the line of sight. These freedoms are inherent in us, and not based on material enablers tied to unfreedom. They depend on no one but me - because nothing can take away my freedom of ignoring the work at hand and looking out to the damp grey sky of Wintery London and being happy.
In the end, the great myth of civilisation is that freedom remains outside and one needs to earn the way to freedom: This is a deeply Freudian construct that our lives are built around around repression. But it is possible to give up the transmuted forms of desire - things - mandated by the society as the end in itself, and rather look out for the episodic, persistent, freedoms all around us. I don't have to try to be free once I understand this, because life is essentially free - it is only when we start listening to others, those want to pool others' freedoms into a vast reservoir of power for themselves, that we give up the freedoms that comes with our being.
Being bound is a choice and freedom is our default state of being.
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How To Live
"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."
- Theodore Roosevelt
- Theodore Roosevelt
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
- T S Eliot
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