Freedom, Part II

On the surface, freedom is about doing what you want when you want. Our desires, our motivations, and our perceived needs often influence our sense of freedom, but there are limitations to our freedom. And, as human beings, we can find ourselves living in denial when it comes to our true abilities when those abilities get in the way of what we want. For example, we have to live with physical limitations. Each person can only run so fast and jump so high, but many of us train and work out trying to push the barriers to our physical capacity beyond their present boundaries. Living in community puts our individual freedoms into conflict with the freedom of others. I have to understand that if I play my music as loud as I want, my neighbors may seek ways to limit my freedom to listen to music. As a practical matter we might say that the limits of one’s freedom end at the beginning of the limit of another person’s freedom. We can get stuck in this superficial understanding of freedom trying to figure out ways to maximize our freedom with new laws, new rules, more space, thicker walls…. The stakes get higher the more threatened we feel. We have shown that we are willing to go to war if we believe our freedom to pursue our basic needs is threatened. Freedom is one of those conditions we might like to define objectively, but human beings quickly move into subjective territory when we try to define the limits of freedom, or what rights we have versus privileges, and how they stand in relation to freedom. I think we often find ourselves in the middle of heated discussions, tackling surface issues like my space versus your space, without really knowing our own or the other person’s deeper understanding of freedom.

What is a deeper understanding of freedom? Can we understanding the qualities or characteristics of freedom? How would those qualities or characteristics inform our understanding of freedom?

Several examples that relate to freedom can help us look at how we might exercise or express freedom in different contexts:

Think for a moment of a child that sits down in front of a piano for the first time. The array of keys represents an unlimited number of sounds that seem infinite when combined with all the potential rhythms the child feels. If that child hears a melody in their mind, their ability to reproduce those sounds is dependent on their ability to use the piano as an instrument. In the beginning the child has to develop physical skills—how to place their hands on the keys, how to develop independent movement in all of their fingers, how to understand the spatial relationships of the keys—all the physical skills necessary to reproduce the sounds they hear in their mind. While learning the physical skills the sounds become more familiar—the individual notes, the sharp/flat notes moving up or down scales, chromatic scales, pentatonic scales, the natural notes, the intervals of two notes played together, the chords formed by three or more notes, the range (octaves) of notes on a piano—and when combined with the physical skills the child’s competence as a musician grows. With more experience he or she learns that there are nuances that become part of the subjective experience and expression of music—legato, fortissimo, lento, pianissimo—these things become part of the language of playing/performing and understanding the music. In the beginning the child’s freedom to express music is limited by their physical skills, their ability to hear or recognize sounds, and their ability to reproduce a variety of rhythms. Through the discipline of learning and developing skills during practice, learning through listening to other musicians perform music, through the experience of performing music for others, the freedom of the child to express themselves through music grows. All the things that the child learns are helpful later when they learn to play with another musician.  The other musician adds new combinations of sound, skill, and experience that can lead to even greater expressions of freedom, especially the unique freedom found in combination with a musical partner.

This example tells us that certain kinds of freedom require the development of skill. Understanding freedom requires learning through experience, and that discipline—which in the beginning may seem to restrict our freedom—eventually leads to a greater freedom of expression.

The example of learning to play piano helps us understand freedom in relation to something that is within our control. The piano is a passive instrument until we engage it and make it an extension of our creativity. For a different example let’s place a person in a sailboat in the middle of the ocean. The person is almost helpless against the elements of wind, water, sun, clouds, darkness, etc. until they develop skills that help them use the boat in relation to those elements. Beyond the skills needed to harness the wind and set direction the sailor must learn to navigate if they want to set a course and reach a destination. The freedom of the sailor is dependent on skills and experience. The freedom of the sailor is also dependent on things they cannot control so they must know how to adjust to the sailing conditions, or non-sailing conditions if they encounter a dead calm. An attitude of co-operation and “going with the flow”—the current, the wind, the waves—are likely to enhance the sailor’s experience of freedom, or lack of freedom.

Let’s give both the pianist and the sailor more power. The pianist with a microphone and an amplifier can take advantage of a greater range of volume. The sailor with a motorboat can move about in less favorable conditions than a boat propelled only by wind and sail. For both the pianist and the sailor, this additional power increases the range of expression of their freedom.

Both the sailor and the pianist experience a certain quality of freedom when they are alone with their boat or piano and their unique combination skills and abilities. When the sailor is placed in a body of water with other boats and sailors, new factors enter into the freedom equation, just as they do when our pianist becomes a member of a music group.

What happens when a sailboat crosses paths with a motorboat? Rules have developed among boat users that give privilege to sailboats when crossing paths with a motorboat. The motorboat has more power and ability to move. The sailboat is dependent on the wind and has less ability to move on command. The boat with more power is required by maritime laws to give the sailboat (with less power) more room to navigate. The person using the motorboat is required to know the potential effect of the powered boat—like the wake created by its path through the water—on the sailboat.

What happens when and amplified musical instrument is paired with an unamplified musical instrument? The amplified musician can drown out the unamplified sound of an acoustic guitar or the unamplified voice of a singer. A drummer out of rhythm with the other musicians can destroy the effect of the music even though the other musicians are performing flawlessly.

We should not find it too difficult to relate these examples to the many other ways that we live with or without freedom, but also to the many ways that we live within relationship or outside of relationship to others.

What do these examples tell us about freedom? Our life experience, the knowledge we gain from learning, our skills and abilities, our power, all have a bearing on our experience of freedom. We experience freedom, or lack of freedom, due to things under our control—like sitting down to play a piano—and as a consequence of things not in our control—like sitting in a sailboat waiting for the wind to blow. Sources of power can put us at an advantage or disadvantage in relation to other people, just like the motorboat versus the sailboat or the amplified musician versus the unamplified. Our experiences as human beings are not uniform nor do we have the same ability to create those experiences. Not everyone can pay for piano lessons or buy/rent a sailboat. We enter into relationship with different abilities and different resources. Our different abilities and resources require us to have different responsibilities and result in different levels of accountability. Our ability to live freely and express freely are almost always a matter of living and working in relationship to others because we develop our skills with the help of others and we gain the use of resources in relationship with others. The quality of our freedom is expressed and experienced in relation to others, not in isolation. We can exploit, destroy, and act with impunity in isolation without regard for others. That may be one version of freedom, but the quality of that kind of freedom changes when the same behavior is expressed in community. The quality of freedom expressed without regard for others in community is soon diminished in proportion to the number of conflicts created when we do not acknowledge our effect on others.

While all of these things are important to our ability to understand, experience and express freedom, I have still not addressed the single most important factor in our experience of and our expression of freedom—our mind. Look for that discussion in my next post.