Freedom Has Fangs
Yellowstone, Epictetus and Star Wars tackle freedom
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about freedom. What it really means, what it costs. The reasons are many. On the personal side of things, we finally gave our 13-year-old daughter a cell phone. I’m very against these devices to kids until they’ve learned to live without them first. We reached that point, and she would benefit from the “freedom” that a cell phone offers a kid who goes on lots of trips and wants to go to the mall with friends unsupervised. But as we all know, once people can reach you wherever you are with texts and calls, that’s not freedom. No one with a cell phone is more “free”. They gain some new and worthwhile freedoms, and then lose others.
At the same time this change was coming to our home, we watched the Yellowstone spinoff, 1883, as a family. The show focuses on a family and European immigrants traveling westward on the Oregon Trail. As we all know from history class, this journey was fraught with death and despair. At the end of the quest is a dream, an idealistic vision of freedom from polite society and the ability to make your own rules in life. But the show has a message throughout the journey, which is that Freedom Has Fangs.
On the trail, a young girl grapples with whether or to not have sex for the first time with the young man she is courting. Her mother reminds her that all her romantic dreams of freedom on the plains will be changed forever if she gives that part of herself to a man she hardly knows, especially if she were to get pregnant. European immigrants who barely speak English come to America with no knowledge of Native Americans, or how to use firearms, many don’t even know how to swim or ride a horse. They came for this word “freedom”, but aren’t actually prepared enough to enjoy it. They will die, because they were unfit for liberation from society and its guardrails.
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What do you consider to be freedom? I wrestle with this daily. The Stoic known as Epictetus had this to say about the topic in The Art of Living,
Most people delude themselves into thinking that freedom comes from doing what feels good or what fosters comfort and ease. The truth is that people who subordinate reason to their feelings of the moment are actually slaves of their desires and aversions. They are ill-prepared to act effectively and nobly when unexpected challenges occur. And they will occur.
Here’s the kicker
Authentic freedom places demands on us. In discovered and comprehending our fundamental relations to one another and enthusiastically performing our duties, true freedom is indeed possible.
I love this particular line of thinking. That doing your duty and fulfilling your “roles” are actually the path to freedom. We have so much rebellion going on in our modern culture against nature and roles, and unsurprisingly…people are more unhappy, depressed, and suicidal than at any time in recent history. The culture encourages the rejection of roles. Treating them like shackles to be thrown off. And then has nothing to say about the wreckage we see playing out in mental health and substance abuse statistics.
I used to think I wanted the popular ideal of freedom. Being single. Hook up culture. No responsibilities beyond what feels good or fun. Then I had a family, and every day I began to wake up knowing what it is I have to do. I knew for the first time in my life what was required of me. There are all manner of things I could do to rid myself of the responsibilities I have, so that I could reenter the wilderness of self-satisfaction. I never lost the freedom to have that life if I really wanted it.
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But I don’t. Because I’ve never felt more free than when I am fulfilling my obligations. Guardrails and rulebooks are shockingly liberating compared to the wilderness.
Remember, freedom has fangs. Freedom also can have boundaries. More than anything, I want to be free of my selfish nature. I want that more than I want freedom from my responsibilities.
Don’t let anyone sell you a false bill of goods on empowerment and liberation. You’ll always be subject to someone or something.
So if you have to choose, go with what Epictetus suggests:
Your purpose should be to seek harmony with nature itself. For this is the road to true freedom.
By “nature”, Epictetus is not talking about the wilderness of Oregon or uncharted lands. Nature is far more than trees and butterflies. It’s within you and your relationship to other people. Embrace it. Be free.
This is the way.