How free are you?
Do you ever feel like you are living more than one life? That you are a completely different person at home and work? How does this role-play make you feel? My bet is that unless you’re a psychopath, the effort of maintaining this charade exhausts you. In fact, you might even feel ashamed about faking your way through the world.
Who we are – or the self, as it’s called – is a function of our thoughts, feelings and desires. Common sense dictates that we edit this true self and portray a measured version of ourselves to the outer world. Simply put, we are expected to curb our spontaneity and conform to the accepted ways of being. But why do we feel compelled to do this? Why is it acceptable only for a few outliers, like artists and children, to be spontaneous while the rest of us carry around the heavy burden of conformity?
The reason behind this phenomenon was brilliantly dissected by German psychologist Erich Fromm in his most popular work Escape from Freedom. While the book was written in response to the rise of fascism in Europe and why good people suspended their judgment to support such murderous ideologies, it also illuminated a more basic compulsion of the human condition: the need to be like everyone else.
Most modern humans, unless living in abject poverty, can today claim to be free. Unlike in the past, there are no kings or religious institutions dictating our actions or telling us how to live. Even families and communities do not hold the same power over individuals and their choices anymore. Simply put, we have achieved freedom from external constraints. But is true freedom just the absence of these shackles? Or is it also the presence of something over and beyond?
The burden of freedom
As the importance of institutions over our lives decreases, we become personally responsible for our decisions and their consequences. Just think for a second about what this means: we might gain free will, yes, but there is also terror as we face the world alone. This is because even though society, family, and governments limited our choices, they gave us security and a sense of belonging. With most of these ties now gone, we face the vastness of the universe and our own insignificance in the full light of day. Fromm writes that most of us cannot handle this incredible burden and therefore seek refuge in conformity.
It is difficult to comprehend this idea because everyday life just doesn’t feel this way. Our thoughts, actions and feelings seem to originate within us without anyone pulling our strings. However, when we step out of the present moment and consider our journey from the past till now, the structure of our autonomy begins to crumble. We realize that not only have we been acting on a script handed down to us, but also have learnt to feel and think how others want us to. Living on these borrowed beliefs gives rise to what Fromm calls the pseudo self, an artificial construction that hides who we really are.
If you’ve ever felt fear at the prospect of standing out, you have witnessed the pseudo self in action. On the other hand, the sting of shame you feel when you act ‘fake’ is the real self longing for escape. The process of burying the real self is so automatic that most of us don’t even realize it’s happening. It all starts when we emerge from childhood into the real world. As our primary ties to parents and teachers begin to fade, we are left to counter the world alone. The prospect of facing up to the infinite possibilities that exist is terrifying, to say the least. This anxiety is so severe that we begin to long for the safety that primary ties provided. But once broken, these ties can’t be rebuilt. So we settle for the next best thing: conforming to the norms of society.
Conformity is so attractive because it provides relief from the sheer terror of alone-ness. However, it exacts a terrible price — the loss of individuality. It ensures that the deep part of yourself, made of your emotions, thoughts and will, languishes under the weight of a borrowed identity. But since this true self can never be completely buried, it expresses itself in the form of a desperation to feel unique. For instance, we compulsively buy products that make us feel different, or lust after experiences we hope will distinguish us from others. But these are merely temporary fixes that do not help us find our true selves. As a result, we lean even more towards conformity, hoping that the approval of others will help us define ourselves.
The way out
Freedom is truly positive when we not only break away from the bonds that tie us down, but also develop the inner ability to engage with the world on our own terms. According to Fromm, we can do this in two ways: through genuine connection with others and by being spontaneous.
In an age of hyper-rationality, spontaneity is usually misunderstood as poor impulse control. A rational person is not supposed to display her original feelings to the outer world, we are told. Rather, her original response needs to be regulated before it can be made public. However, as your own personal experience might prove, it is in moments of unforced emotion that we feel the happiest. Whether it is your unbidden reaction to a piece of art, awe at natural beauty, the sudden click of understanding, or simply playing with a child, spontaneity seems to come from some deep well within us.
The most easily accessible means for achieving spontaneity in life is through meaningful work. For most of us, however, work is a necessary sacrifice and a negation of our true self. Meaningful work, on the other hand, allows us to express ourselves both intellectually and emotionally. Such work makes us want to pursue it for its own sake and is therefore a true expression of our whole, undivided being.
In sum, being yourself means you don’t split the thinking and emotional parts of yourself into separate entities. Instead, you bring your entire being together and meet the world as one integrated self. Further, you learn to differentiate between the goals that you are ‘supposed to’ follow and those that are your own. By gradually replacing these prescribed aims with the ones that make sense for you, you begin to taste real freedom. Because freedom from constraints is a hollow victory if it is unaccompanied by the freedom to pursue all that is possible for us.