A Measure of Freedom

Lately, in more than a few contexts, I’ve seen people really struggle with the balance between what freedom is when you have it and what freedom feels like when you don’t.

I’m pro-freedom. I want unconstrained choices, by default. Counterintuitively, sometimes the greatest freedom we can possess is the ability to restrict our own freedoms to our own benefit.

There are things that, while I could do them, would cause me great harm. I choose not to do them, despite the fact that overall I like having the option. Sometimes, however, the “great harm” is only possible because of an earlier choice I made!

Here’s a simple example: I own a house. If I don’t pay my mortgage, great harm will befall me – legal trouble, the foreclosure of my house, shaky living conditions, ruining of my credit history, bankruptcy, etc. When I simply rented, the consequences would be far less dire – I’d eventually get evicted and probably a ding on my credit history, but that’s it. Much lighter consequences, comparatively speaking. And way back when I just had an informal “under the table” rental agreement with some guys I knew, failure to pay would have had even fewer consequences.

So why then, did I willingly restrict my own freedom? No one made me go from “paying a dude for his spare room” to “signing a lease on an apartment,” and no one made me go from that to “buying a house.” All of the potential harms I’m subject to, the limits on my own freedom, were made by choice. That’s an important thing.

I made those choices, voluntarily limiting my own freedom because it allowed for boons in other areas. Despite the overall loss in freedom, I want to own this house. I like it. It gives me a lot of benefits – benefits that I have decided outweigh the drawbacks of not being able to just disappear if I want to (or at least, significantly raising the cost).

All that being said, here’s the difficult thing: there are times when I am frustrated. When I’ve been “cooped up” for too long, when I haven’t gotten into the woods for a while, when something breaks in my house, when I see someone else who lives in a less geographically permanent manner – I can get frustrated. And when I get frustrated in that way, it’s very very easy to say “Ugh, I should never have bought this house, I wish I could just live out of the back of my car on the road again.”

That is a very dangerous position to be in. Because ultimately, I do have the freedom to make that choice. I can just stop paying my mortgage, pile my kids into the car, and figure it out from there. Any level of good sense will tell me that’s a terrible idea with terrible consequences. But when you’re in that moment…

You can see this scenario play out a thousand times a day if you pay attention to it. Long-term relationships hit a rough patch and one (or more) of the people involved starts remembering how easy it was to be single. People in a job for a long time get stressed out and start remembering how easy it was to not have some boss telling them what to do all the time. Tales as old as time.

This is the most apples-to-oranges comparison you can make, but we make it so easily. Yeah, it was sweet when I didn’t have a boss telling me what to do, why did I ever give that up? Oh, that’s right – I was broke, I had no prospects, and that in turn also kept me from building the life that I truly want, so I willingly restricted my own freedom a little in order to get all these other benefits. Oh man, remember how when I was single I could run around and do whatever I wanted? Yeah, and come home lonely to an empty home and watch my life slip away without building it with someone or raising a family.

So yeah, sometimes I look at the cost or effort of maintaining my home and long for the life of a wandering vagrant. But then I see my children, joyful in the safe and warm space that they use as a foundation for their growth. I see them thrive, and I remember why I gave that freedom up.

Now, here’s the final key to this puzzle. Sure, we can – and should – sometimes voluntarily restrict our own freedoms for our own benefit (important point: our own; this is a world away from someone else making these choices for you). But that doesn’t mean we always land perfectly on the right balance, nor does it mean that even if we do strike that balance, we can avoid the itch, the yearning for the greener grass.

So, here is how to avoid that.

You have to still give yourself the freedom you miss, in small doses. You need to. If you feel cooped up in suburbia, as I sometimes do, it is crucial that you do things like take road trips, go camping, or even crash with friends sometimes when you don’t have to. If you are in a long-term relationship, you need to – on occasion – go out and party with your friends, maintain other connections, and have a little “you” space. If you have a stable, long-term job, you need to do a little freelance/consulting work, take vacations, and say “no” to stuff; maintain healthy boundaries.

You need to do these things for two reasons:

One, because doing so will keep the itch down. It will remind you that you’re not actually trapped – you’re just making choices and trade-offs, as any human must do. Many people are like me and will fight against even a very good situation if they feel like it’s one that’s being forced on them. That’s a form of self-sabotage that it’s good to control. “Microdosing” freedom helps maintain that because you also get to “microdose” the consequences and remember that they exist.

Two, because doing so will help you make accurate and true observations about your current circumstances. Sometimes – not always, but sometimes – you really should sell that house, quit that job, or leave that relationship. But the only way to know is if you have a realistic comparison to make. You can’t compare your actual current living situation with the rose-colored nostalgia of how you remember your life twenty years ago. You can’t compare the job you have now with an imaginary, idealized job you invent in your head. You can’t compare your real, human relationship with what you think is out there.

Freedom, at its core, is good. To truly exercise it, you must have a steady hand and an even heart. You must learn and observe, especially yourself. You must know when to maximize on what you can do, and when to invest in what you should do. Freedom isn’t about never choosing the smaller possibility space over the larger one; it’s just about always making that choice for yourself.

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