Freedom and Constraint

Dear Mitch,

I am sitting on a deck in Cerbere, high above the Mediterranean, feeling free, feeling peaceful.  I am absorbed.  Then I look up and I feel that I never want to stop what I am doing, never want to stop whatever I am doing—until I want to.

I love the mornings when they are quiet, when no one intrudes.  I love when there is time to feel the breeze and the sunshine until I don’t want to anymore.  I love the mornings when I can contemplate matters small and large, when I can write and read and exercise until I am done—and not until there is a demand on my time: a scheduled event or a person requiring my attention.

There have been times during vacations when this kind of freedom has washed over me, and I feel peaceful through the days.  I have been looking to retirement to extend those times, to make them feel infinite.  But now that I am retired, they are not coming as readily as I have dreamed.  There are still people who lay claim to my time based on their timing and who experience my desire for quiet space as selfish or silly.  And, in fairness, they never signed on for this desire of mine.

In general, there is a childlike part of me that wants to be free from obligations, free from rules and demands and “necessity.” As far back as memory takes me, I have had to make my bed, clean my room, do my homework, earn a living, take care of children and family, and friends.  There’s nothing unique in this, of course.  And responding well to most of these demands has led to a good life.  I have a lovely family—children and grandchildren, a wife I love, a brother and sister I continue to love, and many good friends.  My work has gone well, largely because I have been responsible and true to my values and objectives.  The rules and the demands have been manageable. They have pointed me in the right direction. They have served me well.  And yet… a part of me rebels.

The fight isn’t just external. There are so many internalized imperatives.  Am I using my time well?  Am I doing enough?  I need to… substitute here a thousand things that I should be doing for others or myself.  It’s the internal demands that make it harder to rest, to take advantage of the increased time, to take my time with the mornings.  Even before the demands have a name, before they announce themselves with any specificity, I feel an itch to do something that disturbs the quiet that I seek or the quiet that I have  momentarily found.

As a child, I could be daydreaming or floating in the ocean and my father would wonder (loudly) if I was alright.  Translation?  Don’t you want to be more productive?  I can hear Madamoiselle Cattone calling out in French class: Monsieur Dym, vous dormez; tourjour vous dormez.  In fact, I had been trying to understand something important about my girlfriend.  In my view, I was working.  My parental training taught me that there was something illicit about dreaming and lolling in the water, or about drifting from the task at hand.

Now, as I hear those voices of proper behavior, I find myself quietly stomping my feet to demand my freedom.  I feel petulant.  I feel irate.  “Leave me alone,” I want to scream.  And in some of my acerbic little comments, I’m sure people hear that scream just as loud as I hear it in my heart.

Yet there is something terrifying about freedom of all kinds. We are afraid to enter the land where no one tells us what to do.  We take a certain comfort in the structure that rules and routines provide and even that the annoying demands of others provide for us. I remember, a long time ago, reading Eric Fromm’s book, Escape from Freedom, which described how some, even many, people chose autocratic leadership over democracy.  Democracy presents too many choices and people feel lost.  Rather a safe prison than confusion and self doubt.

A decade later, I wrote a doctoral dissertation called, after a Walter Lippmann book, The Chaos of a New Freedom.  The theme must have stayed on my mind.  The dissertation was about a generation of intellectuals who felt freed from the constraints of received truths.  With Nietzsche, they claimed that God is Dead. In his place, are the inventions of human beings: the stories, the structures, the symbols, the cultural icons—all of the things that helped us order and make meaning of our potentially chaotic lives.

I personally thrill to the freedom they chose, the ability, or so they thought, to build their own worlds.  I have always wanted to ‘take the road less traveled.’  Friends and family find me a little eccentric.  They ask me how I moved along a career path that follows an internal logic not always discernible—or approved—by even close observers: historian; psychotherapist; management consultant; writer; entrepreneur.  But to be perfectly honest, I have always surrounded my freedom with conventional supports: family, friends, income, and respect among colleagues.  I could not have chosen my odd professional travels without their continual support.  I would have gotten lost and frightened.

In retirement, and yearning for my freedoms, I am once again confronted by this great existential challenge.  Like many of my generation, I have the opportunity to build a balance between freedom and safety that works for me.  What kind of freedom can my retirement bring?  I don’t know yet, but I think it contains wide swaths of time in the mornings and early afternoons to contemplate and to write and to exercise my body.  What kind of constraints?  I surely can’t say, but I’d like to believe that I have grown strong enough in myself to keep them loose.  I really do want my freedom.

I know that others will not want to sign this contract, not without conditions, not without a fuss.  But I am going to fight for the better balance of freedom and safety that I have, almost unconsciously, been yearning for all of my life.