The Last of the Human Freedoms

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Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
~Viktor Frankl

Having read Viktor Frankl’s autobiography, I truly believe that no matter what your situation in life you are always free to choose your response or action. That itself is freedom. If I translate that into the lives that we live today, it means that no one is the victim of any circumstance. By shirking action of things in your control, you hand over control of your life to those external situations you call circumstance. You might not be able to control your circumstances, but your behavior and attitude is totally in your control. If you tell yourself that you are powerless to do anything, you truly become powerless. Once you start to take charge of your own life, you will see that more and more things will become influenced by your action.

This weekend I went to visit a marine life museum in Yokohama, Japan. In one of the displays there I saw a couple of walruses (the larger one was more than 10 feet in length) kept in a tank that was hardly 25 feet in its largest dimension. On top of that the depth of the water wasn’t even enough to cover half their body length. Yet, they were turning loops in that constricted space. As the people, my friends included, ooh-ed and aah-ed at the wonderful creatures I felt sad. The injustice of their captivity and man’s cruelty made me think about the concept of freedom. If by living in a state of freedom ourselves, we start taking away the freedom of the creatures around us, no matter their standing in the food chain with respect to us, then do we really understand the concept of freedom at all? As I tried to think of what benefit the walruses could possibly have by being held captive, I realized that they were free from any physical dangers or the possibility of starving. Their survival was ensured. But, I know that walruses are not meant to be kept in tanks and doing so goes against their instincts. They have been robbed of a natural existence by the misplaced interference of humans.

I bring this up not just to highlight their plight but to draw a parallel to our lives as well. I believe that human beings have a level of mental existence that is far beyond that of any other creature on the planet. That is what makes us human. And yet, it is our greatest weakness. A physical prison is something that any animal can understand, but for us humans it is the mental prison that is the real danger. This is most commonly noticeable when people say that they “can’t control their emotions” or feel “trapped in a dead end job”. Unlike a physical prison though, most of the times a mental prison is self made. Yet, people treat it like a real prison – waiting for someone to or something to come along to free them. However unbelievable or difficult it might seem, we are not mere victims of our emotions or even our environment. They may influence us but will never be able to take over our actions. What we “do” is in our absolute control. For example, you may feel angry – blood rushing through you, clenched fists, decline in logical prowess – but you can choose to just feel the anger, let it wash over you, but not let it force you into any action. By doing so you assert your freedom over the emotion of anger. I would like you to use this freedom as much as possible – for quitting a job you feel stuck in; not reaching for the candy bar when you are hungry; going outside in the morning inspite of how warm and inviting your bed feels.  As the they say, “Realize you are already free.

Freedom however, is just one side of a coin. Conventionally, freedom is seen as a stand alone ideal. It holds an important place in the hearts of men, but people tend to either forget the other side of the coin, or ignore it. It is this other side – the virtue of responsibility – that gives freedom its true value. Freedom is a form of power. On an individual level it is power over one’s thoughts and actions, the power to choose, the power to decide, the power to live without being held back by anything. Once you take control of life in this way you are the only one in control of the direction it is going to take. Once you have got your freedom, how you assert it in this world will give meaning to it.

But, no human being can live in isolation from society and environment. If you choose to withdraw from social obligations by claiming them to be limitations that hold you back or believing that they are against the principles of freedom, you do yourself great wrong. If enough people behave in the same manner freedom itself will earn a bad reputation. If the people who have gained freedom choose to abandon society, society will come to dislike the power that freedom gives, by virtue of which the “free people” choose to look down upon society and abandon it to its problems. Society will tighten the noose around the next person who strives for freedom, it will be fearful of the consequences of people gaining freedom. What good is your freedom then, if it leaves society fearful of freedom and the concept of freedom dies with you? What have you accomplished with your freedom? What was your struggle and fight for it worth?

If, however, you choose to take responsibility for your actions and contribute for the good of the society, you will have fulfilled the purpose of freedom. It is true that this choice will take you down the path of bigger conflicts and stronger resistance. Society will throw up obstacles in your way that will seem insurmountable, but that is to be expected. By asserting your freedom in this way you have decided to become an agent of change, and it is change that the human society fights most against. Change is inevitable, and with the change you are trying to bring about society will evolve for the better. But they don’t know it yet and fight tooth and nail against you. Do not falter and do not be afraid for you are not alone in this fight. There will always be a people who step into this struggle willingly. This struggle is what gives meaning to our freedom. Everything in nature either grows or dies, and through your struggle you will yourself to grow stronger, you force the society to grow and become better. When you claim your freedom and take up your responsibility, you become a force of nature. You grow beyond yourself and become part of something bigger and in turn you become free of the limitations of your own self. Are you ready to claim your freedom and then forge it into an impenetrable armor? Are you ready to unsheath your responsibility and walk willingly into the ever raging battle for freedom?

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One thought on “The Last of the Human Freedoms

  1. What a beautiful post – your empathy for the walruses is striking and remarkable. I, too, love Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” and I use it as the centerpiece of the upper-level developmental psychology seminar I teach. I love how you tie into the concept of freedom, and the recognition that we all have freedom, even when our options feel sharply constrained.

    PS – I like the new look!

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