“The more the drive toward life is thwarted, the stronger is the drive toward destruction; the more life is realized, the less is the strength of destructiveness. Destructiveness is the outcome of an unlived life.”
― Erich Fromm
The definition of freedom the society imposes is completely thwarted. It teaches us that freedom is the capacity to do anything you want, anytime you want it, such as buying the latest iPhone, a car or traveling endlessly without being constrained to one place. Freedom is, ironically, being sold and marketed just as another commodity.
But what is freedom, really?
Real freedom can be defined as the exertion of the power each man has to consciously and independently choose from a constrained bundle of possibilities at his disposal. You might not be free from financial constraint or illness but you are free to do something about it. Freedom lies not on the capacity to say yes to everything but to say yes only to that which really matters to you and that you decided it’s good for you and everyone else. It lies in saying no to that which will not bring you to the few yeses you actually want in your life.
Anxiety, depression and why we are psychologically unfree
Anxiety and depression are way much more common than they need to be and the way we are solving it is completely insane. The apparent solution for our ails is pills and distraction. We believe that we will find a cure by buying more stuff or traveling more or having more of anything. This is great, of course, for the consumerist society we live in as the very system that is supposed to benefit us, encourages our anxieties further by making us believe that if we just had those pair of new shoes, even though you already have enough, you will finally quench your anxieties, but the catch here is that this little game we are all playing just makes us more and more anxious.
So, what is the pathway to free yourself from the psychological burdens of anxiety and depression?
Steven Pressfield argues in his book Turning Pro, that the solution is not to fall into the rat-race trap but to find something you are really passionate about and become great at it, turning pro. The pursuit of excellence on a self-chosen field.
The truth about life is that you are going to experience suffering, no matter what. With this thought in mind, there are basically two paths you can take. The first one, which is also the most common, is to run away from your suffering, anxieties, insecurities and all and try to hide them with pleasure or distraction like drinking, taking drugs to forget yourself or constant mindless entertainment. The second one is through work and love, through making the effort to find a calling where you can find meaning and purpose. As Marcus Aurelius well put it long ago.
The Obstacle is the way.
This can only be achieved through persistence and constant disciplined cultivation of habits and skills, self-imposed chains of discipline. While you might think that going out and having fun with your friends or girlfriend and enjoy yourself whenever you want is real freedom. Real psychological freedom will only be found in doing the work that is self-imposed, such as writing jokes or making a video, something that you find meaningful and getting your hands dirty with it, only once you know you’ve put in the day’s work can you go out knowing that you’ve contributed and you are on your way so you deserve a treat for making your life and others better.
Freedom, in its essence is the acceptance of the chains that suit you, and for which you are suited, and of the harness in which you pull towards an end chosen and valued by yourself and not imposed. It is not, and can never be, the absence of restrictions, obligations, law or duty.
Bionislaw Malinowski, Freedom and Civilization
But why? Why shouldn’t I just lay back and enjoy life? Why shouldn’t I just get a comfortable job I enjoy and spent my days having a drink and watching a good movie?
The reason why you cannot simply do this is because of the need and want for growth is entangled in your very genes. All human beings feel the need and desire to grow.
What happens when you neglect your capacity for greatness and don’t pursue your calling?
Present in body and absent in spirit, he lies back on the couch, shamed by his own potential that will not be subdued. He feels himself inwardly subversive imagining in his passivity extremes of aggression and desire that must be suppressed. Solution: more work, more money, more drink, more weight, more things, more infotainment.
James Hillman, The Soul’s Code
If you’ve ever had the experience of waking up earlier than usual and work on a personal project before anything else, and only after that, you start your day, you know what the feeling of accomplishment and having mental ease feels like, godly. By doing this, you can deal with the day in a much better way as you are no longer encumbered by the anxiety and destructiveness that an unlived life brings.
If you think that you have to end your depressions and anxieties first before you can start working or finding out what you want to do for yourself, you are getting it wrong. The process of finding out what you want to and then becoming a pro in it is the solution.
What we get when we turn pro is we find our power. We find our will and our voice and we find our self-respect. We become who we always were but had, until then, been afraid to embrace and to live out.
Steven Pressfield, Turning Pro
How to start?
“Modern man lives under the illusion that he knows ‘what he wants,’ while he actually wants what he is supposed to want. In order to accept this it is necessary to realize that to know what one really wants is not comparatively easy, as most people think, but one of the most difficult problems any human being has to solve. It is a task we frantically try to avoid by accepting ready-made goals as though they were our own.”
― Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom
The beginning is always going to be the hardest part. Some people find their calling early in life, and some of us find it later. Nevertheless, it is of paramount importance to try and try and keep trying until you find a field you really enjoy and would love to become great at.
When you finally make the decision to answer and to contribute with your greatness, to accept your life challenges and tasks, you might want to do it because you want the money or fame it implies, but bear in mind this is a trap, a trap on which you’ll end up in the same place.
If the end you have in mind is money or fame you will end up neglecting the psychological benefits that come with becoming great at something, applying yourself in a self-chosen field will free you from the psychological burdens of not doing something with your life. You will rise above the psychological problems and they will no longer affect you as they once did. They will become neutralized by a sense of peace and accomplishment that not many people can say they have.
Chase after money and security and your heart will never be unclenched. Care about people approval and you will be their prisoner. Do your work and then step back, the only path to serenity.
Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching
a great complement to this read: How to Start
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Hello, I’m Ricardo Guaderrama, the face behind Stoic Answers.
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