Years ago, I was privy to a very interesting discussion between my Mom and one of my friends. I had brought him over to hang out and catch up, and as usual he went and talked to my Mom, instead (this was a common occurrence in my life, but I’m not holding a grudge or anything…). Anyway, this particular friend was a reincarnated Beat poet (or at least, he acted as if he were) and identified himself with many “radical” ideologies. He liked to talk about Freedom a lot. Every time he said the word, you could see the capital letters. Everything boiled down to Freedom. And so my Mother, in her typical, astute fashion, asked him a simple question:
Are you talking about Freedom From, or Freedom To?
It rather rattled him, and the discussion got a little incoherent from there. I don’t remember now her explanation of the difference. In fact, I have asked her several times over the years to reiterate it to me, and I still don’t remember it. I have spent a lot of time thinking about the distinction, though, and come up with some of my own conclusions, which I am offering up here in light of the ongoing debate about Freedom in the United States, and in much of the western world at this point. If we are going to demand our freedom, we should at least be clear on the nature of our demands.
When we talk about Freedom, it is often an ephemeral idea, not a well defined set of parameters. Conversely, we may discuss Freedom in the context of specific actions, but without looking at the overall concept. Especially when we get into politics, we tend to line up on either side of an invisible divide, with one side effectively arguing for Freedom From, whilst the other rants about Freedom To, without either realizing what they are doing.
To some, Freedom is a state encompassing the absence of limiting factors. We can have Freedom From terrorism, from invasion of privacy, from oppression, or from pork spending. This is a self-limiting type of freedom, which relies on an outside source for its motivation. It is a reactionary freedom, and as such can never truly be achieved, as it must have an oppressor to fight against. To strive ultimately toward Freedom From is a psychological trap, for what you hold also holds onto you. Your oppressors become your co-conspirators, for without them you have nothing to overcome; you have no Freedom.
Freedom To is an expectation of being able to act upon your own judgement to do what you feel is best in a given situation. We can have Freedom To ignore useful advice, to act on the same advice if we feel it is merited, to express our thoughts, or to withold them if we deem it prudent. Freedom To is a fundamentally different mindset than Freedom From, in that with it we find that we are already Free. We may do anything we wish if we are prepared to accept the consequences. Freedom To is a pre-existing condition which cannot be taken away from us, except under the most extreme circumstances. Even in the tiniest jail cell, there is still room for Freedom To, albeit under the constraints imposed by Freedom From.
At times, we find that we must fight the “good fight” in order to ensure that our Freedom From provides us room enough for our Freedom To. But in doing so, we must not lose sight of the fact that this is the lesser of the battles, and one without end. The larger battle, the fight for Freedom To, takes place only within ourselves. And if we look closely enough, we will see that it is already won.