Are we Prepared for Freedom?

“Have a walking stick ready before stumbling.” - Japanese Proverb

In our modern day, we tend to, especially younger folks, think that we highly value “freedom.” This notion, in and of itself is fine. However, many of us desire this freedom, without understanding its implications. First, we will take a step back and understand what we mean by “freedom,” then we need to step through what we as individuals must be ready and willing to accept, and face if that is the path that we so choose.

What is freedom?

To start our journey, how do we define this trite and poorly elucidated term “freedom”? A common definition is “being able to do what I want” or “to be able to make my own choices.” It seems as though we want to make our own choices, thus allowing us not to feel enslaved. Another facet pushed in contemporary times is the portion that pertains to “will.” At least in the West, we are told that whatever we set our minds on, we can “will” into existence. This idea brings the term “freedom of will” into the dialogue. This concept is the force that many see behind the making of their own decisions. To be clear, the term “freedom” is of paramount importance, but it is never absolute. We should understand that the term pertains to the ability to act, speak and think in an unencumbered manner. It is essential that we all have at least some semblance of a common understanding around this term because, from this launch pad, things are about to get complicated, as is the way of life.

The Rogue Warrior

Let us take a step back into the era of abundant world exploration. Think of the times when Columbus sailed the ocean. This period was when a good portion of the globe was unexplored territory. The people of the time were hungry to conquer this new land. So, they set off on expeditions in small groups. Once the new territory was had, they built a fort to formulate a community. This establishment represented a small piece of order where society and culture could at least smolder with the hopes of later catching fire in the sense of spreading. The fortress is symbolic of man’s attempt to thwart disorder and maintain societal structure.

Any armament is the front line. It inherently bridges the chasm between chaos and order. When there is an attack, the rebut is an attempt to re-establish order. This offensive is the societal method of establishing a coherent pattern and structure. This crusade symbolized the spread of culture and civility to a world riddled with disease, famine, and death.

The ironic part is that due to the cyclical nature of reality, this exploration and freedom only lasted for some time. As the Western Establishment marched it’s way across new territory leaving behind civilization, this too became overbearing and ultimately tyrannical. After a certain point, this sort of structure began to repel those who it once served and protected.

“Terrible, chaotic forces lurk behind the facade of the normal world. These forces are kept at bay by maintenance of social order. The reign of order is insufficient, however, because order itself becomes overbearing and deadly, if allowed unregulated or permanent expression. The actions of the hero constitute an antidote to the deadly forces of chaos, and to the tyranny of order. The hero creates order from chaos and reconstructs that order when necessary. His actions simultaneously ensure that novelty remains tolerable and that security remains flexible.” Pg. 91 [1]

Therefore, once order becomes overbearing, warriors or heroes emerged from the established settlement. Those were the individuals that went off into the forest and claimed the land of their own. These were the people willing to take on the chaos of the world DIRECTLY. These were the individuals who hunted knowing well that their attempt could fail, and that they could, at best, go without sustenance.

Inside the fortress, life was protected and sustained by meeting basic human needs along with the assistance, aid, and guidance of others. On the outside, the warrior had to do everything him/herself. Fortunately, many people had large families in times past which provided a helping hand. However, the true warrior/hero had to hunt, forage, make fire and shelter all his own. He also had to be combative and alert because the lurking threat of death was always imminent whether by hostile people or animals.

It should be emphasized here that the warrior/hero figure embodied the continual bridging of chaos and order. This individual had to have a higher aptitude, be much stronger, and more intelligent than the average person. To go back to the opening quote, venturing into the forest was walking. Before we ventured, we first had to learn to walk and then fashion a walking stick. That way, when we stumbled - which we inevitably did - we were prepared with the proper tools. If the explorer was not well prepared, then they merely perished. Their life was the front line. There was not a single second when they were not transforming the wild, untamed world of nature, into some small semblance of culture and order.

Contemporary Society

Now, there is an essential reason for telling this story. It has a compelling parallel to what is happening in more modern times. In the West especially, we have a robust society and social order. In many ways, it is becoming brutal and corrupt. This issue is primarily due to a degradation of morals and values rooted in a shallowing of epistemology.

“This “problem of morality” – is there anything moral, in any realistic general sense, and if so, how might it be comprehended? – is a question that has now attained paramount importance. We have the technological power to do anything we want (certainly, anything destructive; potentially, anything creative); commingled with that power, however, is an equally profound existential uncertainty, shallowness and confusion. Our constant cross-cultural interchanges and our capacity for critical reasoning has undermined our faith in the traditions of our forebears – perhaps for good reason. However, the individual cannot live without belief – without action and valuation – and science cannot provide that belief. We must nonetheless put our faith into something.” Pg. 10 [1]

From this, we can see that we as humans need to believe something. We have denied many approaches that our predecessors created, and utilized. This cleavage leaves us at a new frontier. One where we must decide what it is that we deem essential. We also must determine how we create such a value structure. Based on how we formulate this, it will drive our actions. Because of this lack of historical outlook, we are at a time of paramount importance. This era is a time when the individual must do the work to become educated enough to determine the appropriate path. It is for this reason that we should see what our forefathers have done.

In the days of sailing ships, the prevailing mindset was that groups left the tyrannical monarch in hopes of settling and creating a life with more freedom. In our modern day, it seems as though educational institutions, Corporate America and the government represent this same tyrannical force. These structures in and of themselves are set out to help us deal with the world. However, as D.O. Hebb has eloquently stated:

“[The urbanity characterizing ourselves,]… the civilized, amiable, and admirable part of mankind, well brought up and not constantly in a state of fear… depends as much on our successfully avoiding disturbing stimulation as on a lowered sensitivity [to fear-producing stimuli]…. [T]he capacity for emotional breakdown may [well] be self-concealing, leading [animals and human beings] to find or create an environment in which the stimuli to excessive emotional response are at a minimum. So effective is our society in this regard that its members – especially the well-to-do and educated ones – may not even guess at some of their own potentialities. One usually thinks of education, in the broad sense, as producing a resourceful, emotionally stable adult, without respect to the environment in which these traits are to appear. To some extent this may be true. But education can be seen as being also the means of establishing a protective social environment in which emotional stability is possible. Perhaps it strengthens the individual against unreasonable fears and rages, but it certainly produces a uniformity of appearance and behavior which reduces the frequency with which the individual member of the society encounters the causes of such emotion. On this view, the susceptibility to emotional disturbance may not be decreased. It may, in fact, be increased. The protective cocoon of uniformity, in personal appearance, manners, and social activity generally, will make small deviations from custom appear increasingly strange and thus (if the general thesis is sound) increasingly intolerable. The inevitable small deviations from custom will bulk increasingly large, and the members of the society, finding themselves tolerating trivial deviations well, will continue to think of themselves as socially adaptable.” Adapted from [1]

Here it is clear to see that conformity is encouraged. This point is where learned helplessness can come into the equation. This situation is where people try to either move up within the structure or go out onto their own but continue to fail. When this happens with an incorrect understanding, the individual is likely to give up as trying again in their minds, will yield the same result of another failure. This notion does not have to be the case. There are ways in which we can fend off the dark world of chaos, without fully letting in the iron fist of a tyrant.

We can split off from this structure in several ways. The first is to join a fortress, Aka. A small business or start one of our own. We can also become a warrior; this is to say, go out on our own and forage for sustenance in the economic sphere. Either of these offers more freedom than a traditional desk jokey position. However, as with all things in life, it is not without a cost.

It is refreshing to see many young people eager to jump out into the world to face the chaos themselves in the hopes of not having the strong, invisible hand of order bearing down on them. The thing that many of us do not realize is that by making this choice, especially the one to become a warrior, is a TREMENDOUS responsibility. The option here is to leave behind many structures that have been put into place to help us to establish order. The value of such rules and systems are not trivial even though many younger folks - including myself until recently - have written off such systems. Being nested within such a structure of rules and processes allows us to sail through life in a way that requires a “relatively” low amount of effort and energy. However, this leaves no mention of fulfillment or happiness.

There is a choice here — one of PARAMOUNT importance. Either take the life of assisted order or choose to forge one’s path. The freedom to choose a way that is, to paraphrase Jordan Peterson, “meaningful, not expedient” along with “picking an appropriate burden and bearing it” could be the most significant choice of our lives. Now, of course, we are dealing with extremes currently. We should be reminded that this is NOT how life works. Everything is a spectrum, that is to say not black and white, but some shade in between. We can work within a system but recognize it for what it is, and through this recognition at least become partially liberated from its rigidity. At the same time, we can realize the beauty and complexity of such a structure.

Now, we must take a hard look at ourselves. Are we cut out to be a full-on hero? Is this something that we want to do? Are we willing to suffer the consequences? Which path is the one for us? How do we know what is “meaningful, and not necessarily expedient”?

What can we do?

“Our narratives describe the world as it possesses broad but classifiable implication for motor output - as it signifies. We gather information about the nature of the world, as it signifies for behavior, by watching ourselves and the others who compose our social groups act in the world. We derive conclusions about the fundamental meanings of things by observing how we respond to them.” Pg. 100 [1]

“...[To] live, it is necessary to act. Action presupposes belief and interpretation (implicit, if not explicit). Belief has to be grounded in faith, in the final analysis (as the criteria by which a moral theory might be evaluated have to be chosen, as well). There is no reason, however, why such faith cannot be informed, and critically assessed.” Pg. 92 [1]

To act, we must assign value. By assigning value, we ultimately deem what we are currently doing more important than the infinite potential of alternatives. This action also automatically devalues whatever we do not choose. Because we can value something highly, so do other people. Because there are so many people on the earth, it is almost certain, that what we appreciate and act upon, in some way will negatively impact others. It is for this reason, those common and structured methods of action are imperative. This point is where mythology and religion fall into place. These stories “should” become guide books, tools for learning, to inform our moral and value-based judgments in life. This approach is of course for each of us to decide.

“A good theory about the structure of myth should let you see how a story you couldn’t even understand previously might shed new and useful light on the meaning of your life. [...] [The] “partially implicit” mythic stories or fantasies that guide our adaption, in general, appear to describe or portray or embody three permanent constituent elements of human experience: the unknown, or unexplored territory; the known, or explored territory; and the process - the knower - that mediates between them. These three elements constitute the cosmos - that is, the world of experience - from the narrative or mythological perspective.” Pg. 99 [1]

These narratives or mythological stories can become powerful contributing factors to our actions. However, we should realize that many other attributes make us act the way we do. Let us re-examine from the introduction the “freedom of will.” There is an increasing tendency to think of ourselves as individuals, that is independent agents capable of acting in a manner decoupled from the slough of factors that contribute to our actions and decisions. We should remember that we are physical beings bounded by physical restraints. These come in the form of biology, psychology, and sociology. At this point, a quote by Friedrich Nietzsche comes to mind:

“The desire for “freedom of will” in the superlative, metaphysical sense, such as still holds sway, unfortunately, in the minds of the half-educated, the desire to bear the entire an ultimate responsibility for one’s actions oneself, and to absolve God, the world, ancestors, chance, and society therefrom, involves nothing less than to be precisely this CAUSA SUI, and, with more than Munchausen daring, to pull oneself up into existence by the hair, out of the slough of nothingness. [...] [In] real life it is only a question of STRONG and WEAK wills. - It is almost always a symptom of what is lacking in himself, when a thinker, in every “causal-connection” and “psychological necessity,” manifests something of compulsion, indigence, obsequiousness, oppression, and non-freedom; it is suspicious to have such feelings - the person betrays himself.” Pg. 13,14 [2]

What does this have to do with our current discussion? The point is that we are not able to “will” ourselves to be warriors, explorers, or heroes. If we are, we must accept such a burden, if we are not, then that is equally fine. If we happen to be blessed with a strong will and are at the cusp of our own hero's journey, then perhaps we can embark on such a conquest. If we have a weak will and sitting at a desk, doing the bare minimum to get by makes us content, then that should be our focus. In no way in this dialogue is it suggested that we should try to become not what we were meant to be. We must ruthlessly and unapologetically become ourselves. This notion is the deepest and most profound work of our lives. This conceptualization comes through learning and exploration of our inner landscapes. Through this exploration, some will find that the well-trodden path is not for them.

For some, the mundane life of conformity and complacency is not an acceptable choice. It seems like, especially the younger generation, or those who have done some traveling of the world have the urge to venture out on their own. This way is a beautiful path, one that requires MUCH preparation, training, aptitude, mindfulness, intelligence, vision, drive and instinct. It is the path of solitude. It is the way of the hero venturing into the forest in the night, standing alone amongst the trees, fending off the wolves of chaos and disorder.

“The unknown is yang, cold, dark and feminine; the known, yin, warm, bright and masculine; the knower is the man living in the Tao, on the razor’s edge, on the straight and narrow path, on the proper road, in meaning, in the kingdom of heaven, on the mountaintop, crucified on the branches of the world-tree - is the individual who voluntarily carves out the space between nature and culture.” Pg. 104 [1]

This notion is the way of CONSTANT hunting, foraging, fighting, creating, building, destroying, growing, decaying, living and dying. This idea is the way of constant development and learning by venturing into the chaos and bringing back, fully assimilated information and interjecting it into society as new knowledge and order. This expanse is the place where we MUST have the walking stick ready before we stumble. This method is the way of living on the razor’s edge, a place some people feel most alive, while others are unable to move, stricken with fear. Therefore, it is our sole responsibility to learn and understand. From here the way to our freedom will become clear. It is the razor’s edge, the straight and narrow path that affords us freedom. We must recognize that it is a forever bounded freedom. Again, freedom is not absolute.

“The matrix is of indeterminable breadth: despite our great storehouse of culture, despite the wisdom bequeathed to us by our ancestors, we are still fundamentally ignorant and will remain so, no matter how much we learn. The domain of the unknown surrounds us like an ocean surrounds an island. We can increase the area of the island, but we never take away much from the sea.” Pg. 48 [1]

Citations:

[1] J. B. Peterson, “Maps of Meaning,” Maps of Meaning. pp. 19–502.

[2] F. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil. MVP, 2019.