I have recently experienced my ex-spouse, my friends, the husbands of my friends, essentially many of the men I know who are in their forties (not all of them, of course, but too many to ignore), express a wistfulness, a nostalgia for a fictional freedom. The kind where you don’t have to let your partner know what time you are coming home that night, or need to make dinner for the family. The kind where you can go drink and smoke and party it up as if it were the early 90s and the Day-Glo Abortions were playing another Hell House gig (sorry- this is a localized Victoria reference of my youth) or simply get in your car and go on an impromptu road trip without telling anyone.
The kind that allows you to make decisions solely on your own needs- kind of like the way a two year old might wield a machine gun—not focussing on who the bullets are hitting but simply on their ability to push the button.
They think that if only they didn’t have the “burden”, the responsibility of family, if only they were on their own (or with that hot chick from accounting who surely would never be a burden- I am being facetious here, but, actually, not really) they could be free to be whatever, whoever they wanted. That they are trapped by the responsibility of a family and the expectations of their spouse, and the patterns daily life digs into all of us, men and women alike, until we are one big ditch and the only way we can see out is by using the bodies of our loved ones as a step ladder to haul ourselves out and run away.
But this kind of freedom is a fallacy. It is a myth born out of fear, dissatisfaction and desperation to recapture something that never existed in the first place, a harmful idea that claims the cause of our imprisonment is outside of ourselves, that our jailers are our loved ones instead of our own destructive patterns and thoughts.
Freedom is not the opposite of responsibility, love or family. If you take away these things, our lives become as meaningless and toxic as one of Donald Trump’s speeches. Freedom is found in the daily dance, the inner work that we must do to stay true to ourselves and our needs while at the same time considering the needs of those around us. We have freedom when we can walk through the world being entirely ourselves without stomping over everyone else, where we can embrace our relationships as joyful and meaningful a practice as writing or drawing or making a beautiful table.
Yes. I said practice. Relationships take a commitment to ongoing work, a.k.a practice. If one wants to get good at something, one must practice. Why would relationships be any different?
I have just finished reading Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, on how our western society has allowed the medical system to take over the last stage of our lives: our decline. What Gawande is talking about when he is talking about death and dying, is really about how we want to be living our dying. What is important to us? How do we want to spend our last days?
In many ways, his experiences of the palliative care system and of hospice are lessons not only for that last phase of our life, but serve as a guide to how we want to go through each stage: with autonomy, meaning, and in charge of our story:
“There are different concepts of autonomy. One is autonomy as free action—living completely independently, free of coercion and limitation. This kind of freedom is a common battle cry.
But it is… a fantasy. Our lives are inherently dependent on others and subject to forces and circumstances well beyond our control. Having more freedom seems better than having less. But to what end? The amount of freedom you have in your life is not the measure of the worth of your life. Just as safety is an empty and even self-defeating goal to live for, so ultimately is autonomy… [I made it bold]” Atul Gawande, Being Mortal, p.140
Raising children is the perfect example. Being a parent means realizing that your actions have an impact on other people. That the way you behave, the way you react, your prejudices and biases, your preferences and dislikes, and the way you deal with your kids are going to have a big influence on shaping who the person you are raising will ultimately become. This means that you have to be careful. And thoughtful. And self aware if you don’t want to fuck it up too badly (which we all do, at least a little. Because let’s face it, we are human. But the extent to which you ignore this responsibility is in direct proportion to how little or much you fuck them up.)
Now this can be either perceived as a burden, an onerous task that weighs heavily on our shoulders, an albatross of responsibility. Or it can be seen as an incredible gift—to have people so intimately connected to us that our actions have an immediate impact on them. That people love us enough to be affected by our actions.
I think that is what jars me about the way I hear the men around me lately talk about freedom. They blame their supposed lack of it on the very existence of their family, their spouses, their girlfriends, etc. The old ball and chain metaphor once again rears its ugly, gendered head.
This is not only unfair, it is a violence. It is saying to your loved ones, “you are holding me down. I am in prison and you are the prison guard.” No one wants to be seen as a freedom taker-awayer (I’m working on a better title for this), especially the freedom of those we love.
Victor Frankl said, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitudes in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way.”
Frankl had a lot to say about responsibility and freedom as these concepts were deeply entwined with his ideas on meaning and purpose. Frankl saw Responsibility as the flip side of the Freedom coin (he liked to “recommend” to American audiences that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented with the Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast):
By declaring that man is responsible and must actualize the potential meaning of his life, I wish to stress that the true meaning of his life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system. I have termed this constitutive characteristic “the self-transcendence of human existence.” It denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself—be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself—by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.
He is saying that we have the freedom to choose and to discover what is meaningful to us. That is the inside work, the way in which we face the world. But ultimately, that thing or person that gives our life meaning, whether it be our families, or our work or whatever combination of what we do that makes our lives meaningful, these things will be found outside of us. We cannot live only for ourselves. That truly is meaningless. Meaning requires the other.
Mid-life crisis, for all its clichéd resonances, is real. It is a time where we have to look hard at ourselves, to exercise our last and most vital freedom and choose whether and then how to change our lives.
In the name of this mythical freedom will we blow our life up and consequently the lives of our loved ones? Or will we choose to see these feelings of being trapped and dissatisfaction as an opportunity to make some meaningful changes? Ultimately to exercise our freedom to be as aware of ourselves as possible, humble in the face of the other, and consider our loved ones while we choose our own way?
In a nutshell: Freedom does not require you to be a dickhead. In fact, quite the opposite.