Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task. ~William James

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Freedom--It's Gaining on Me!

I never really got around to reading Erich Fromm's 1941 classic Escape from Freedom--which was interestingly published in England under the title Fear of Freedom.  But I do own the book, and I have read several synopses, so that should count for. . .not so much, probably.  

In any case, I find his premise compelling.  Powell's Books sums it up this way:
If humanity cannot live with the dangers and responsibilities inherent in freedom, it will probably turn to authoritarianism. 
Fromm, according to people who have read the book, wrote of the anxiety and emptiness many of us experience in the absence of imposed controls.  Been there, felt that.   And he distinguished between "freedom from" (bad) and "freedom to" (good), which are, in essence, the horns of the dilemma I have been straddling for a good chunk of my adult life.

For many reasons, some profound and most serendipitous, I have existed largely outside the formal labor market for most of my "working" life.  This is not to say that I haven't worked, and even held jobs from time to time.  But in and out of formal paid employment, I have "enjoyed" a great deal of freedom.  I have had jobs that involved setting my own schedule, determining my own assignments, and traveling over fairly large geographic areas.  Jobs with night and weekend hours which were "comped" into hours off.   And this explains why I was reading Alan Lakein's How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life all those years ago.

The latitude to decide what I'm going to do, and when I'm going to do it, has been a benediction and a scourge.  Rita Emmett, in The Procrastinator's Handbook, writes of the dangers of drift, the subject of Gretchen Rubin's Happiness Project video this week, and particularly troublesome for those of us in relatively unstructured work situations.  Researchers tell us that our overtaxed brains are buckling under the weight of too many choices and "decision fatigue." Pursued by freedom, I am tempted, as Erich Fromm warned, to flee into the waiting arms of authoritarianism. Maybe I should "get a job." Or maybe I should approach my life like a job. Create routine. Generate lists. Boss myself around.

Of course, Erich Fromm would have me brave the storms of cowardice.  Turn and face the opportunities in my freedom.  Use that "freedom to" connect with the world I find myself in, and join my creative effort to the project of improvement.  Theoretically, this way of experiencing freedom would assuage my anxiety, replace the emptiness with purpose, and avoid the need for arbitrary structure.  

At the end of all this reflecting, I am left with my choices.  I still have to figure out what to do today, and where to begin.  (My dog just volunteered to take this decision from me.  He knows what I should do first.)

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