The Art of Being Free

Nothing is more wonderful than the art of being free, but nothing is harder to learn how to use than freedom.

Alexis de Tocqueville

There’s this psychologist guy named Erik Erikson, which I think is kind of a cruel name, and he came up with these stages of development, and they’re pretty good, probably because his parents were dicks*.

StageAgesBasic VirtueBasic Conflict
1Birth to 12 to 18 monthsHopeTrust vs. Mistrust
218 months to 3yearsWillAutonomy vs. Shame/Doubt
33 to 6 yearsPurposeInitiative vs. Guilt
46 to 12 yearsCompetencyIndustry vs. Inferiority
512 to 18 yearsFidelityIdentity vs. Role Confusion
619 to 40 yearsLoveIntimacy vs. Isolation
740 to 65 yearsCareGenerativity vs. Stagnation
865 to deathWisdomEgo Integrity vs. Despair

And I have a hypothesis about this. I think that people raised in very strict homes often didn’t get the chance to develop their sense of trust, autonomy, initiative or industry. 

As a result, a lot of people actually like to be told what to do. At least, they like to know what is expected of them. Sure, sure, everybody wants to feel like they’re a free agent and they’re their own person and all that stuff, but you look closely, you’ll see that a large number of people actually want to take the safe path. They seek affirmation; they want to please their superiors. And when they aren’t operating out of obligation, they kind of don’t know what to do.

People don’t know what to do with freedom. When they have too much of it, they get anxious, and worried. 

But freedom isn’t the problem; knowing how to use it is the problem.

If you can start learning how to operate deliberately, you can start exercising and truly enjoying your freedom. And whenever you get the sense of anxiety, like “I’m not doing a good job at this;” or “I don’t want to do this;” think, “I’m choosing to do this, and my work is going to be an expression of who I am and the skills I want to develop.” Everything you do can be an expression of who you are and an a manifestation or exploration of what you ultimately believe.

But the action has to come from a place of deliberate choice, rather than out of obligation. If you’re doing it out of obligation, you’re letting go of responsibility. You’re letting go of accountability. You’re letting someone else be your master.

People become slaves to the cultures they’re a part of. They become slaves to their ideas of what others want. They become slaves to the responsibilities they think they have to show up for. And so they play life safely – never really living. 

But if you can look at what you do as an expression of who you are, or a discovery of who you are, or an appreciation of what is, then you start to develop your muscles of freedom. You start to develop trust of self, autonomy, initiative and industry. You’re not trying to be productive to avoid getting in trouble; rather, you’re industrious because your work means something to you.

And then you are not only free, but you’re in a position to give the gift that only you can give. You’re in a position to live your potential. You’re in a position to act and not be acted upon. You’re in a position to live

*note: he actually gave himself the last name of Erikson. and he never knew his mother’s first husband, nor the man that illegitimately sired him. This might be why he was so interested in figuring out the keys to developing well.

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