The constraints into which we are born or those that become the circumstances of our life ground our freedom to choose. This freedom is the foundation of our being.
Coming into being without a purpose or as part of a grand design– a master plan, humans enter and live this life in relative freedom. Of course it hardly feels that way to most of us. Quite often, it feels like one choking responsibility or requirement after another. What’s difficult to accept, much less experience authentically, is that the life we live is based on our choices and that we have the freedom to choose, over and over again, from one moment to the next.
It’s undeniable that there are the presumed facts of our life. We come into this world with a gender and a race (at least as others have assigned such things), an able body/mind or one that is considered to be less so, the socio-economic position of our circumstances at birth, parents who may be loving or may be abusive (or somewhere in between), in a country that may be more or less free, more or less repressive, maybe in the midst of a war or its painful aftermath. These facts of our birth ground the freedom that we also are born with. Without a pre-ordained direction set for each life, every person is free to choose who they want to be (and also to change their mind and choose it differently as many times as they choose). Will other people, sometimes even the culture in general, set up obstacles– either because of what others want or what the culture deems right and/or valuable, including constraints because of the just-mentioned facts of our birth? That’s pretty much a given. But it doesn’t keep us from making our own choices, including how we will get around and/or accommodate these obstacles.
We exist in a world and that world is filled with realities– realities of war, of discrimination, of repression, of prosperous times and recession. Existentialist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir wrote that the facts of our existence are what we are each to work through for our freedom. As we address our constraints, we realize our essence. Existence precedes essence, claimed her compatriot Jean-Paul Sartre. That is, we are thrown into this world as basically raw material. Our essence will be created based upon the choices we make, along with their related actions and consequences.
This is not the freedom of “no constraints”– that carefree freedom of a day off from our regular work-a-day lives. The freedom in being is much more of a double-edged sword. It acknowledges the choices that truly are ours to make, and the responsibilities that are always embedded in those choices. For many, this kind of freedom and its associated responsibility is terrifying. This is the existential angst of our existence, the source of both our misery and our grandeur. Please just tell me what to do (and then let me blame anyone but me if it doesn’t go as planned.) Instead, actual awareness of and commitment to the freedom and responsibility of choice in our lives gives us an opportunity to play a constructive role in that life and also in the world around us. In Sartre’s words, we can use this freedom “to modify the shape of the world.” And in so doing, we each mold the very essence of ourselves. We ascribe meaning and purpose to our choice and actions and define ourselves as who we want to be. The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus maintained a similar sentiment: “The content of your character is your choice. Day by day, what you choose, what you think and what you do is who you become.”
Freedom is a predominant theme in the story of humankind. People have struggled individually and together for freedom from tyranny, from slavery, from oppression of all kinds for tens of thousands of years. These obstacles to freedom are cast upon us by “other” human beings. When this is the case, stories of moral right and wrong, good and evil, just and unjust become the context in which we make our choices. There is no ethical requirement in the actual freedom in which we each exist. But without an ethical approach to the choices we make, we remain isolated and anxious in a world of ambiguity. Simone de Beauvoir explains that
“A freedom which is interested only in denying freedom must be denied. And it is not true that the recognition of the freedom of others limits my own freedom: to be free is not to have the power to do anything you like; it is to be able to surpass the given toward an open future; the existence of others as a freedom defines my situation and is even the condition of my own freedom. I am oppressed if I am thrown into prison, but not if I am kept from throwing my neighbor into prison.”
Phenomenologist Martin Heidegger found human existence to be groundless, devoid of certainty. As we come to terms with our mortality, we can become lost in fear and alienation. If, though, we face our mortality directly and fully, we become the sole masters of our fate and can determine the meaningfulness of our own life. Only in this way can we ground ourselves in this temporal life and proceed with authenticity.
It is the constraints to our freedom (including our inevitable demise) that give the true value and meaning to the freedom we do choose to act upon. Phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty stressed that if all of our actions were equally free, then ‘free’ would cease to mean anything. When contrasted with the actions we are not free to take, only then do we get a sense of our freedom in being, the freedom to choose. Now, should we choose to, we have the content we can mold into the story of a personally meaningful purpose for our being.
De Beauvoir, Simone. 1948. The Ethics of Ambiguity. trans. Bernard Frechtman. New York: Philosophical Library/Open Road.
Heidegger, Martin. 2008. Being and Time. New York: HarperCollins.
Heraclitus and Haxton, B., 2001. Fragments. New York: Viking.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1962. Phenomenology of Perception. trans. Colin Smith. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. 2007. Existentialism is a Humanism. trans. Carol Macomber. New Haven: Yale University Press.
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