Thoughts: On Freedom

The American story is one of flight. We teach our kindergarteners about the Pilgrims who came here in 1620, fleeing religious persecution. We tell of the migrants passing through Ellis Island, finally finding a chance to remake themselves. We mythologize stories of the frontier and the Old West, noting the hardscrabble man who strikes out in search of something better.

We should not be surprised at America’s love affair with cars, how we figured out how to mass produce them here, how they are not a conveyance as much as a symbol. Ask any old man or woman who has had to give over the keys, or any 15 year old ready to get her license, or anyone at all who has packed up the car and driven away for a week, a month, the rest of his life. Cars symbolize the freedom that our forebears sought. They are the 20th century version of what steamships and trains were in the 19th, horses and homesteads were in the 18th.

Cut ties, remake yourself, and you will be free.

There is an alternative story beneath the surface, one evoked in those men embarking west, men who often were running from debts or unhappy marriages. You see it lurking in places like On the Road, Kerouac’s beautiful picture of escape and true living, but you can see the disillusionment, the need to push farther, go down to Mexico, find something else new. It’s wonderful, yes, but there is a darkness to it.

All my stories are about this idea, in some ways. They are about this urge to flee, to remake ourselves. It is quintessentially American–from Kerouac to Huckleberry Finn to Moby Dick. Call of the Wild. Grapes of Wrath. Catcher in the RyeRabbit, Run. It is a temptation upon which America was founded. One that sits at the edges of our daily consciousness, this yearning to flee, to find something new. Things will be better.

Of course, there’s a great lie to all this: we are forever stuck with ourselves, whether in Boston or Bali. More poetically, he cried out in his anger and his shame, ‘I am leaving, I am leaving,’ but the fighter still remains.

No, real freedom is not found behind a six-cylinder engine or over the next horizon: it comes only in the well-worn relationships, those where we’ve fought and struggled, laughed and hoped together. It comes in those places where we are known better than we know ourselves. If continuing to form new relationships and move from group to group means we are adrift about ourselves, then we only find mooring in staying with others.

Freedom inheres in relationships of love, of respect. It’s much less conditional and more inherent in lifestyle: we cannot grasp freedom at a stroke, but we pursue it with choice after choice, finding ourselves loved and loving, and able to say and do what will give more freedom, whether it’s expressing anger and finding your partner is still beside you or doing something potentially more vulnerable and demonstrating your latest dance moves.

We cannot flee to find freedom. Yes, sometimes, like those principled pilgrims, flight will be part of our movement toward freedom. But it is never the end. Freedom is a series of daily choices. Of habits. To think otherwise is wrong, but it isn’t new–it’s as old as indebted men running away west, or boarding a whaling ship to experience something new, or even, as old as Cain himself.

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