True freedom versus “toxic individualism”

I’m writing about freedom from my home in T’bilisi, Republic of Georgia, where the 2-month-long state of emergency is just now coming to an end. The sweeping restrictions on freedom were received without protest; borders were closed, freedom of movement in and out of cities came to a halt, masks were donned, small stores closed (and many went bankrupt,) and compliance with the curfew mostly adhered.

The Georgians, renowned for their hospitality and community, did what needed to be done; new coronavirus cases are now down to a trickle. Last night I gathered with my local and expat friends to celebrate the end of curfew, and life in a safe bubble that integrates “we” with “me” (the resulting economic tragedies not withstanding.)

“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

Nelson Mandela

The US news feed offers a stark contrast. 100,000 dead in the name of freedom from “government over-reach” with no real end in sight. A feud by store owners and customers over the “right” to not wear masks. A deadly, narcissistic definition of freedom and liberty that is poisoning the concept of Autonomy, a fundamental human need that cannot be properly understood without the context of Belonging.

freedom/ˈfriːdəm/

  1. the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants. “we do have some freedom of choice.” Similar: entitlement privilege prerogative
  2. the state of not being imprisoned or enslaved. “The shark thrashed its way to freedom”

Ouch… no wonder we’ve gone astray; this is not exactly a healthy definition of freedom. “As one wants” is a dangerously slippery slope, focusing solely on the outer world: physical barriers to break or actions we want to take. But freedom in the outer world is only made possible by freedom in our inner worlds; inner and outer worlds are mirrors of each other. Interconnected, both/and, simultaneously.

Balancing we with me

Insead published a thoughtful article on this topic last year that highlights two types of groups identified by 19th century sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies. In Gemeinschaft (community), the welfare of the group takes precedence over that of the individual. By contrast, Gesellschaft (society)is more impersonal; it came to represent urban environments with a more individualistic outlook.

The author notes that the focus on what’s best for the community has morphed into what’s best for me. Self-promotion and individuality rule the day. He calls for a balance of the two types within societies and organizations, neutralising the “faulty premises of the self-esteem movement” and developing the skills of empathy and compassion.

I’d like to build on his core premise and try to go beyond the duality of me versus we. The author’s implication is that the “I” needs to be reigned in, and through one lens, he makes a valid point. But in another sense, perhaps an insufficient “I” is the root cause of this dysfunction we see in the world.

What do I mean by that?

What we see and create in our outer worlds are mirror reflections of our inner worlds.

What we see and create in our outer worlds are mirror reflections of our inner worlds. People denying the freedom of others aren’t free in their own minds. People fighting against government overreach (“don’t take my liberty!”) aren’t feeling free in their own minds.

So if we want to see more freedom in our outer world, we have to go deep inside ourselves… which is where the root of the problem lies. We paradoxically need to focus more on our own healthy sense of “I” — developing the strength of confidence, character, freedom — in order for a healthy “we” to emerge.

I’m not going to say I have all the answers; I’m still sorting through this topic. But what is emerging for me thus far are paradoxes. Here are three of them:

The way of freedom knows that we’re already free

A frequent theme in my coaching calls is the A > B > C path. “I need to keep this job in order to feel safe.” “I need to be a digital nomad in order to feel free.” “I need to find someone to date in order to feel loved.” We want C — the feeling — and then try to find a B to make that happen. But what if we recognize that A > C is a simpler, easier and faster path to the same outcome?

Instead of seeking freedom from or freedom to, we simply recognize that each of us is freedom itself. It’s possible to experience that authentic state of being that is both boundless and bound in love; it requires dropping from our overactive minds into our hearts, and getting deeply connected with the truth of who we are.

The more I contemplate this topic and feel into my own lived experience, I understand that freedom emerges from a feeling of safety… the kind not dependent on the outer world like jobs, relationships and routines (which all can vanish at any moment), but rather on a deep inner-world core: a healthy, flexible skeleton of self-assurance. This allows us to discard our psychological “exoskeleton,” or protective armor, designed to protect but instead imprisons.

With this idea in mind, I am not surprised about the protesters fighting for freedom from masks, or freedom for guns; these are people whose inherent feelings of safety are threatened. They’re grasping for outer-world freedoms instead of tapping into the inner wellspring of safety-empowered freedom that is within all of us.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

victor frankl

I believe that when enough individuals make this shift from outer-world to inner-world — freedom from fear, freedom to be lovingly true to ourselves, freedom to choose joy in any circumstance, like a holy prayer — we’ll hit a tipping point and trigger a phase change in our environments. Like water transforming to ice or steam, we each have the opportunity to create a freer society by first freeing ourselves within.

Until that happens, I’m not sure much will be done about the structural outer-world barriers that inhibit basic freedoms and rights for millions of fellow humans.

True freedom means we are not free to be anything we want.

Only human beings try to be something that we’re not. A mountain lion is not free to become a dolphin; a sand-hill crane is not free to be gorilla. Freedom is found in being true to who we really are, owning and celebrating constraints instead of seeking some imaginary idea of perfection or contorting ourselves into what we think society, organizations or families want us to be. When we limit ourselves to our zone of authenticity, only then can we be truly free.

In other words, true freedom requires limits, but not solely in the way that the Insead article writes. This is about acknowledging the realistic constraints on who we are as individuals; these limits are like the banks of a river. When the banks are absent, water spreads and stagnates. Establishing solid banks will channel and focus the power of the water, leading to the state of flow. Living in our truth, what I call the ground of power, means everything gets easier.

There is no I

One of my favorite images from my meditation practice is that of waves on the ocean. Each wave is simultaneously individual and inseparable. Both/and. In this context, no one is free until we are all free. We free ourselves precisely by freeing others.

“And verily he will find the roots of the good and the bad, the fruitful and the fruitless, all entwined together in the silent heart of the earth.”

KHALIL GIBRAN, THE PROPHET

Are you ready to create more freedom in your life? Join my free Facebook group, the Freedom Forge, where we discuss these ideas and I host live weekly coaching calls.

Book a 1:1 coaching call with me! No obligation; I free myself by helping to free others.


4 thoughts on “True freedom versus “toxic individualism”

  1. Hi, Jen. I applaud your courage so please don’t be offended, but I found this article confusing. I’m going to try reading it again after I’ve had some coffee.

    1. Jae, I appreciate your candor! Writing helps me get clarity on massive topics like this, so your comment helps me know that I’m not quite there yet. I just added a clarifying bridge (“What we see and create in our outer worlds are mirror reflections of our inner worlds.”) Hoping it helps. Thanks again.

  2. Powerful thoughts. I live in a state in the U.S. that flipped a switch and opened. Wide open. It’s quite scary to think what will happen in the next month. Sadly, it’s all about I.

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