I am an American. I enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as my birthright. I have always enjoyed the privilege of these rights. They were gifts given to me at birth, and they are ideals that I’ve always valued and clung to. I have my freedom.
Or do I?
What is freedom, anyway? I decided to look it up, and I found some interesting results. The funny thing about language is how personal and nuanced language can truly be. If you look up the meaning of “freedom,” you may see it defined as “the state of being free or at liberty rather than in confinement or under physical restraint.” If, then, you look up the word “liberty,” you may find a result that explains liberty as “freedom from arbitrary or despotic government or control … freedom from control, interference, obligation, restriction, hampering conditions, etc; power or right of doing, thinking, speaking, etc., according to choice.”
The dictionary definitions of both “freedom” and “liberty” use the words “freedom” and “liberty” to define each other. They are undoubtedly linked, and in fact entwined with each other. To be free is to have liberty. To have liberty is to have freedom.
Somewhere in the midst of those definitions lies the heart of the matter. When we are free, we can say, do, feel, think and act without restraint and according to choice without the burdens of control, interference, obligation, restriction, hampering conditons, etc.
Seen in this light, it turns out that I haven’t lived my life as a free woman very much at all.
I’ve lived a great portion of my life under my self-imposed fears, and in doing so, I’ve thwarted my own freedom. I’ve let my interpretation of other people’s expectations direct my actions, and indeed my thoughts and feelings as well. I’ve allowed my understanding of societal norms and values to influence my own values and I’ve structured my life based on the norms of this American society of mine.
Every time I’ve said, “I should really volunteer to do this extra work at the office that no one else wants to do for no additional pay or recognition,” or thought “I guess I’ll buy these ugly and uncomfortable pants because they are the cool pants,” or resigned myself to smile politely and say, “Sure, I’ll buy this product even though I really don’t need it and I really don’t want it and I really don’t have the money to spare for it but I really want you to like me,” I’ve spit in the face of my freedom. I’ve let other people’s expectations (or more accurately, my interpretation of other people’s expectations) dictate my desires and behaviors.
Here are a few ways I demonstrated my bondage to expectations:
- I chose a school close to home with fellow students that looked like me and had similar goals as me, rather than explore an unknown territory
- I chose a safe career that would let me fit in with my peer group, earn a reasonable amount of reasonably secure money and allow me to “have a family,” rather than a more exciting, more unpredictable or more fulfilling life following my passions
- I worked my tail off at my job and kissed up the boss and my clients so I could fit into the corporate culture and succeed and “get ahead,” resulting in a busy, busy, busy life in the hamster wheel of work with fatigue and disappointment so great that I hated Sundays and couldn’t even imagine being relaxed or un-tired
- I bought stuff to look good, and bought other stuff to make my house look good, and bought stuff because it was on sale, and bought more stuff because I couldn’t find the stuff I had already purchased, and then bought more stuff to organize all my stuff so I could have all the stuff I thought society expected a person like me to have
- I spent hours of my days in front of the TV, including watching important stuff like “The Bachelor” (including the “After the Rose Ceremony” bonus episodes) and catching every sports game I could so I could appear to my friends and coworkers as if I knew who the Kardashians were, not so I could enlighten my brain or nourish my own dreams
Now that I’ve been soul searching and doing the deep internal work necessary to truly come to grips with my own journey here on this earth, I don’t feel as much pressure to do, act or think the way that other people want me to. This newfound understanding of myself has given me freedom to be me in a way that no declaration from the founders of America ever has. I’ve been able to let go of the “should’s” by letting go of judgement. I appreciate myself now. I see my unique gifts. I don’t want to be invisible anymore, or erase my unique contribution to the world simply by going along with what I perceive other people to view me as. I’m no longer content with that.
For too long, I’ve whined about my choices in life as if I was a victim of these expectations I’ve put on myself. The truth is, I have always been free. I was only enslaved by others because I chose to let their opinions and values override my own. I am only confined by my judgment of others and myself. If I simply want to be liked, then I let other people’s expectation run my entire life.
Conforming to societal norms wasn’t something I was forced to do. I wasn’t bound, literally or figuratively, by words or shackles. I did this to myself through something I thought was natural – judgment. I looked at the world around me and I judged my relative position inside of it, and I used my judgment to make choices. I looked at what I liked and what I didn’t like, and I called some things “good” and some things “bad,” some things “right” and some things “wrong.” It was very important to me to be a Good Girl, so I did the things that I judged as helping me appear to be a Good Girl.
Therefore, it comes down to judgment. My own personal freedom comes not from finding the “right” things to do and doing them, but by releasing all judgment about right and wrong and instead accepting myself, the world and the beautiful people in it just as they are.
I don’t want to convince you that my political beliefs are better than yours. I don’t care what church you go to, or if you go to church at all, or if you worship the Goddess of Eternal Maple Leaves. I don’t want you to be offended by the same stuff that offends me. You don’t need to be aghast over an event in order for me to personally feel compelled to donate to the cause that will combat it. I won’t get offended by you cheering for the Wolverines even though I’m an avid Spartan. I won’t be scared that you’re judging my kale salad just because you chose a cheeseburger. I’m perfectly okay with you disciplining your child how you see fit while I teach my kids in my own way. I can wear a sundress to an event that you wear jeans to, and we can both be comfortable in our own skin. I don’t expect you to act a certain way and I won’t judge you for being different than me. Of course you’re different than me.
I don’t want you to exert your control over me, so I don’t want to exert my control over you. There’s no point to trying to control each other anyway, because the only thing we can control in life is ourselves. No one has ever changed their mind by being told they were wrong. Force and manipulation only result in more force and manipulation in return, plus some added resentment and bitterness to boot.
I have found true freedom by letting going of judgment. It’s liberating. It’s the truest way I’ve ever known to be free.
I didn’t get my freedom from a book, a document or another person’s words. I found it inside myself. I chose to release judgment and embrace acceptance, instead. That’s something we can each do, and it’s incredibly powerful.
Next week we will be celebrating the birth of freedom in America. We’ll be waving flags and shooting off fireworks to celebrate the hard-won liberty our forefathers promised us in the writing of the Declaration of Independence.
Next week, I will be celebrating my own personal liberation. I have thrown off the shackles of self-doubt and judgment that have limited me. I’m embracing my authentic life, honoring my liberty and pursuing a happiness I’ve never felt before.
Happy Independence Day, indeed.