Our Longing for Freedom | An Excerpt from The Five Longings

From Compliance to Choice


All experience has shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer . . . than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But . . . it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.
—Declaration of Independence

What Is Freedom?

Freedom, at its most basic, is the right and ability to make and act on our own choices. The philosopher John Stuart Mill, in On Liberty, distinguished two ways of experiencing freedom. First, we are free to act according to our own choices and wishes. Second, we are free when we are not coerced or restrained. Thus, there is a freedom to and freedom from. The former is in the certitude that we have the power and agency to act. The latter is in freedom from inhibition, fear, habit, or compulsion—obstacles to freedom. We explore both these options in this chapter and the next.

Jared’s Story

We begin with how we are sometimes controlled by our own beliefs and inhibitions or the power we have given others over us. Jared, age twenty-seven, realizes he is not really free. He feels compelled to stay in a job that has no future “but pays the rent.” This fits with his lifelong “safety first” belief, a wise truth but one that can go too far when it crimps the full range of our freedom. Jared is also quite skilled in photography and has recently been able to sell some of his work. He is afraid to launch out on his own because of his fear-leading-to-compulsion to hold on to a sure thing. This feels safer than gambling on the success of his own creativity and ingenuity. Jared can take that chance and reduce his anxiety by using some helpful practices, such as those discussed above. He, and any of us, can make use of stress-reduction techniques that address our fear. We are then able to do the very opposite of what we fear, to jump without a net. We can launch out instead of staying put, letting the chips fall where they may. We can deal with the consequences of our actions and so learn to stabilize ourselves in the midst of any hazards that arise. As a result, we are dealing with our fear of not being capable of self-care—the origin of the compulsion. We now trust ourselves when we arrive at a threshold, when we find ourselves in a pinch, when we dare to take a chance. We keep noticing the contribution of self-trust to becoming free.

Jared is controlled by his beliefs. Some of us find ourselves easily controlled by other people. We may be in a relationship in which we are controlled by our partner. We may feel ourselves controlled by our children, our employer, our friends. These are all forms of compliance, the cancellation of freedom. When we allow ourselves to be controlled by others, we are giving up on our natural longing for liberty.

Why Are We Afraid of Freedom?

As we wonder why we let ourselves be controlled, we begin to see how we might be in on it. It seems as if we are being intimidated by those who are controlling us. We imagine that we are afraid of them. Yet, in reality we might be afraid of having freedom and personal power. In the poem by Emily Dickinson entitled “We never know how high we are,” the poet delves into the question of why we don’t stretch to the full dimensions of ourselves. She concludes that each of us carries around a “fear to be a King.” In other words, we fear our own power.

Predators, especially in relationships, will notice that fear in us and take advantage of it. But as we look carefully at the transactions between us and them, we see that they are not simply controlling us; they are, on another level, keeping us safe from the threat we feel about having a license to be who we really are. By being under their control, we never have to face the responsibilities and challenges that come with free choice. Our fear is not about how they will harm or leave us if we don’t obey them but about the risk of being fully free. My fear is not of them but of me.

Our Unspoken Laws

On a related topic, we also notice that in civil life we follow laws that are just and reasonable because they are for the common good. However, there are unspoken laws regarding behavior and belief that are imposed on us within society, family, and religion that may not be for our best good. It is a task of healthy adulthood to examine these rules to see if they fit with our individual sense of personal liberty and happiness. For instance, we might have been born into a family that has inculcated rabid prejudices into us against certain groups because of their religion, nationality, race, gender, sexual orientation, or political affiliation. As adolescents and adults it is up to us to decide whether we will maintain those biases. This takes self-informing and deep examination of our own sense of what is right and good. It is only then that we are honoring our longing for true freedom.

The religion we were born into may have imposed such restrictions on how we think and see the world that now we are inhibited in imagination, thought, or behavior. It will be up to us to examine beliefs and moral proscriptions one by one to see which ones reflect our own values now. Freedom is moving from compliance with others to personal choice. That transition is what we long for. A healthy, mature adult will not be content to operate out of blind obedience.

Gender-Based Roles

Our gender-based behavior might also be highly regulated by societal directives. For instance, girls early on learn the carefully constructed rules about how a woman should look and act. This runs the gamut from having their hair done to needing to shave their legs and underarms. There are rules about which shoes to wear with which outfits, which jewelry, which handbag, and which makeup. The rules are exact, even extending to which nail polish goes with which lipstick. All these fashion and grooming styles, or rules, are rightly criticized by feminists as oppressive. Yet, we can also acknowledge that a woman might, consciously and out of personal preference, choose to follow some or all the conventions, and that does not mean that she has lost her freedom. On the other hand, women who choose not to follow the norms/rules represent an equally authentic model of what is included in being feminine.

The bigger issue for women is that the freedoms allowed to men—for example, freedom over their own bodies—are still denied to them in so many ways. Political, religious, and familial freedom for women the world over is still not secured or even widely acknowledged as legitimate. That calls for continual protest, and all of us can join in that struggle. All five longings are legitimate human rights, so all of us can work toward their becoming available equally to all people.

For boys and men, freedom to be themselves was perhaps inhibited by a set of imposed rules about the posturing that is defined as manliness. Such “manliness” is, of course, nothing more than a set of rules, directives, and restrictions we were schooled—or scared—into following. The strict code was inculcated by peers, family, society, movies. They fooled us into thinking that the macho-manly, often aggressive style was the right one for all boys. Unless we have seen through this imposition, we might still admire masculine-macho men and lament that we are not able to be like them. Their intimidating manner in any confrontation may lead us to believe they are stronger than we are, so we keep ourselves at a disadvantage in that way too.

The rules extend to every part of our lives: how we dress, how we walk or sit, which words or what tone of voice we use, how we gesture, how or which feeling we show, how we behave, how we are sexually. There are carefully drawn boundaries around each of these.

We had many models, especially the guys around us who gave the appearance of successfully living by the tribal rules. They formed an in-group and the rest of us were outsiders. Being on the margin often led to a sense of shame. We wished we were like “the guys,” who appeared so effortlessly manly. Knowing we never could be like that pillaged our self-esteem. But how free were the manly guys who had to follow such severe regulations?

I have observed how the manliness rules-of-the-role in adult life can interfere with intimate relating. In my experience working as a therapist with couples on how to improve listening/communicating skills, I’ve sometimes encountered a man who will say the appropriate thing but in a crusty tone and with no eye contact. I can see that speaking tenderly is difficult for him. I am aware that one of his regulations is a John Wayne tone of voice. How much freedom does a man have if even the tone of his voice is carefully calculated by others? To be free is to have access to the full range of human emotions. We don’t enjoy that range if our words, tone, and gestures are already assigned to us from outside, and ever so stereotyped, sources.

The character of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird is a wonderful example of a manly guy who is tender in his speech and whose actions are not tied to the standard requirements of manliness. He shows us that manliness is not a combination of toughness and ego with a list of mannerisms and attitudes to be scrupulously adhered to. It is unique in each man with an individually designed style of strength and sensitivity.

The psychologist Abraham Maslow noticed that self-actualized men and women were resistant to enculturation. Carl Rogers used the phrase “fit vanguard” to describe the self-actualized people who lead the evolution of our species into new freedoms. To fulfill our longing for freedom will take being ourselves no matter what the consequences, an enterprise requiring pluck and audacity. Here we see another example of how the fulfillment of a longing is in our own hands. We also see how the recommendations of the self-help movement regarding self-acceptance and self-affirmation are geared to the actualization of our longing for freedom.

Longing for Deliverance

From an individual-cosmic perspective, the exodus theme of longing for deliverance remains alive in us, as it was for the ancient Israelites and for the Civil War slaves. But in personal life, deliverance can only come from within ourselves. We recall Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., in his poem “The Chambered Nautilus” advising, “Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul . . . Till thou at length art free.”

Finally, a bodhisattva is an enlightened person who chooses not to enter nirvana until all beings come along with him into liberation. In the style of a bodhisattva, our longing for freedom includes wanting all men and women to be free. None of us is really free until all of us are free. There is a direct connection between fulfilling this personal longing and dedicating ourselves to social justice and equality. We keep noticing that longings are not simply wishes for what we want. Each of the five longings is a calling to repair the world. This means aligning ourselves with the intention of evolution: more consciousness, more connection. Then our cosmic purpose is revealed to us: cocreating a world of love, meaning, freedom, happiness, and growth.

I have sworn upon the altar of God an eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.
—Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush, 1800

David Richo, PhD, is a psychotherapist, teacher, writer, and workshop leader whose work emphasizes the benefits of mindfulness and loving-kindness in personal growth and emotional well-being. Find out more about him here.

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