This post focuses on the idea of freedom, specifically from an existential vantage point. Rollo May, an existential theorist, said freedom “entails being able to harbor different possibilities in one’s mind even though it is not clear at the moment which way one must act.” (Feist, Feist, and Roberts p.331). It has to do with the ability to change, to create who you will be. May discussed two types of freedom, existential and essential freedom. Existential freedom is the freedom to enact one’s choices. Essential freedom is “freedom of being” (Feist, Feist, and Roberts, p.332).
May argues that the freedom we enjoy in Western society often hampers our ability to experience essential freedom. In fact, it is often those denied freedom of choices that experience essential freedom. Prisoners speak of their inner freedom. Another existential theorist, Viktor Frankl, wrote his seminal book, “Man’s Search for Meaning” after being in a concentration camp. This is where he discovered his essential freedom. He decided the one thing the Nazi’s could not take from him (as they had taken everything else) was who he would be.
A popular podcast, called “Serial”, was suggestive of this type of freedom. In its inaugural season, “Serial” told the story of Adnan, a man convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend in 1999. In 12 episodes, it investigated the evidence in the case to explore whether he was wrongfully convicted. It was the number one podcast on iTunes during its run. In episode 11, titled, “Rumors”, Sarah Koenig (the host) reads a letter written by Adnan. In it he discusses how this podcast has raised awareness, and how the increased interest in his case has detracted from his peace of mind. He states, “I guess what I’m trying to say is that I was able to find the peace of mind in prison that I lost at my trial.” (Serial, Ep11, 36:55 to 37:00). He had been at peace with his life, though incarcerated, before the notoriety of the case. It could be argued that the possibility of existential freedom has negatively affected his essential freedom.
When I listened to Adnan’s words in that episode, I was reminded of Albert Camus’ novel, “The Stranger”. In it the main character, Meursault, was unattached and essentially free. He was in the present and didn’t feel a need to conform to societal norms. He didn’t concern himself with what others thought. He had inner peace.
This is difficult to attain. Essential freedom isn’t something we pursue in this culture. Instead, we pursue material objects, accomplishments, and other indicators of success. In fact we are the land of the (existentially) free. We want more freedom, more ability to do what we want. There is nothing wrong with this, if we can balance it with essential freedom.
As I prepare to publish this, the Christmas holiday is a recent memory, and the New Year, with its promise, is beginning. It is likely those reading this have accumulated new things, and have made resolutions for the future. This mirrors the unnecessary but common battle between existential freedom (freedom to choose) and essential freedom (freedom in being). The gift-giving holiday represents existential freedom, where the New Year holiday represents essential freedom. Far too often the former wins out. The ability to experience inner freedom and peace of mind, takes a back seat to material gain.
Janis Joplin sang, “freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose”. The fictional character Tyler Durden from “Fight Club” said, “The things you own, they end up owning you”. The unnecessary battle between existential and essential freedom is evident in pop culture. Existential philosophers have been purporting these ideas for centuries. The message escapes the general populace. Very few embrace the idea. Those who do, find it liberating.
Most of my writing focuses on gaining more peace of mind; far more skilled and accomplished writers than I do the same. Eckhart Tolle, Wayne Dyer, and Rick Hanson, author of my favorite book, “Buddha’s Brain”, do the same. We all encourage the development of peace of mind, recognizing the ability inherent in each of us to rewire our brains to be more peaceful, to actually be more in charge of who we are. In short, providing encouragement to embrace our essential freedom.
Existential philosophers argue we don’t need to be incarcerated, or otherwise have freedom of choice taken from us, to be essentially free. Instead, we only need realize we are incarcerated in this life, with death as the final verdict. When we truly accept our imminent death, we foster essential freedom.
Copyright William Berry, 2015
Camus, A; 1988; The Stranger
Feist, J; Feist, G; and Roberts, T; 2013; Theories of Personality
Serial; 2014; podcast; retrieved from http://serialpodcast.org
Uhls, J; 1998; Fight Club screenplay; based on a novel by Chuck Palahnuik; retrieved from http://www.imsdb.com/scripts/Fight-Club.html