Real Freedom Requires Limits

As California enters its second lockdown, I keep thinking about freedom. What does it mean to be free? Some people would say it’s doing whatever you want, whenever you want. But is that really true?

I read a great essay by Rebecca Solnit on “Masculinity as Radical Selfishness.” She mentions the axiom, “My right to swing my arm ends where your nose begins,” which is about balancing personal freedom with the rights of others. It’s also about watching out for someone else’s rights. She says what we’re seeing a prevalence of right now though is the idea that my right to swing my arm doesn’t end where your nose begins, but instead just doesn’t end. And in fact, your nose is not my problem and should get out of the way.

She also says in the U.S., “unlimited armswinging peaks at an intersection between whiteness and maleness, with plenty of white women on board who seem to believe that a white lady’s job is to protect white men’s armswinging (often with a selfless disregard for their own noses).” I think she’s right. Often what we associate with “freedom” is really just hypermasculinity because again to quote Solnit, the isolated individual (ideally white and male) are the metaphorical fists and must rule supreme. However, there’s a lack of understanding here that no man is an island; we don’t live in our own self-contained bubbles accomplishing everything by ourselves. It seems to me this pandemic more than anything is highlighting that. We want someone else to cut our hair. We want someone else to make our food. We want someone else to sit next to us and smile.

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Would this woman be able to travel safely without the limit of road rules? No. Photo by Averie Woodard on Unsplash

Humans are social creatures. We are not meant to live in isolation. The hypermasculine freedom some in the U.S. idealize is a myth because what happens when that individual gets sick? They rely on the collective to help them out – they go to the hospital for care, or a doctor, or the drugstore.

My spiritual teacher says “just as my life is important to me, others’ lives are equally important to them; and if we do not give proper value to the lives of all creatures, then the development of the entire humanity becomes impossible.”

It becomes impossible because individual life is bound to the collective. Collective welfare lies in individuals and individual welfare lies in collectivity. There is no instance where my individual welfare doesn’t contribute to collective welfare. And furthermore, real freedom requires constraint. That may seem like an oxymoron but hear me out. Retired Navy SEAL, author, and podcaster Jocko Willink says, “Freedom is what everyone wants – to be able to act and live with freedom. But the only way to get to a place of freedom is through discipline. If you want financial freedom, you have to have financial discipline. If you want more free time, you have to follow a more disciplined time management system. Discipline equals freedom applies to every aspect of life: If you want more freedom, get more discipline.”

He’s talking specifically about individual freedom of course, but I think the same message applies to collective freedom. We’re able to drive safely, for the most part, because there are rules associated with driving. We’re able to buy food we enjoy because there are regulations that keep expired food off the shelves. I realize there are problems with the rules and regulations I listed, but I’d much rather have those problems than going into a grocery store and wondering if the food I’m buying will poison me.

Real freedom requires discipline and a care for others. Anything else is just selfishness that will eventually catch up to us.

I dream of a world where we recognize true freedom requires giving up a little bit of freedom. A world where we understand we can’t do what we want whenever we please without consequences for ourselves and others. A world where we understand real freedom requires limits.

Another world is not only possible, it’s probable.

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