Friday, March 17, 2017

The Happy Curmudgeon: Sufficient Freedom

My-Self: 1:4
“Happy is the man…”

“When the mind’s free,
The body’s delicate. ”
William Shakespeare
King Lear (1608), Act III, scene 4, line 11

When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.” 
Ralph Ellison [1913–1994],
Invisible Man (1952)

Before December 18, 2012, I had never spent a night in the hospital. I was in excellent health, or so I thought. On that day, I was told that I had a tumor in my colon and it was cancer. In a blink of an eye, at age 55, my view of my health and of myself changed. This change is now permanent. Or so it seems at the moment.

What this tells me now—back then I was too immersed in treatment and recovery to think about the seriousness of this statement—is that change can and often does come about unexpectedly. So much so that one can never prepare for these shocks in life. And this news was a shock, as it is for so many others. My view of myself changed and continued to change in the months of treatment—the so-called new normal.

Even after treatments ended, what I had to face was another unpleasant truth: I was still no longer free to be myself, despite earnest but inadequate efforts on my part to do so, including taking on a regime of exercising and healthy eating, since this person no longer existed; he could not be resuscitated, returned to the land of the living. My diminishing physical abilities and the diminishing possibilities to recover it combined in some unholy alliance to change the way I saw myself.

I was also getting older, and continue to do so, that is, age, which brings with it similar losses of freedom. Things are not the way they once were.

A recognition occurs. I was placed, against my will and desire, in a awkward position of having to rediscover who I was, never a simple or easy task at any stage of life. This knowledge of Self is always bound up with the ideas of Freedom. It’s a personal journey on the tortuous (and at times, torturous) road of epistemology.

Even so, as always, there is a problem; there are speed bumps and other hazards on the road to sufficient knowledge and understanding. How much freedom we have in our lives is not really known, but we tend to not think about it until we lose some of it, or more pointedly, a slice of it in a pie of indeterminate size. Then, we know we have lost something and we also know that we have lost something important, essential to our being. This also helps us gauge, however inaccurate the measurement, how much freedom we once had, or seem to have had.

It is knowledge of some sort, but not the kind that offers any comfort.

It is also true that we always want more freedom than we have (are given?), and tend to bemoan later on the lack of freedom we currently have. In other words, we think that we have squandered what we once had in youth. When we had it in our grasp. But we did not know then what we know now. Isn’t this always the case?

It is our human nature to mourn the loss of something valuable. Different people respond differently to similar circumstances (it’s never exactly the same). Someone once said, I forget who it was, that “freedom begins in the mind,” that if you think that you are free, no matter the physical circumstances you find yourself in, then you are free.

This suggests that freedom can be conjured up in the mind, even if you are locked up in a small cell of a prison. Perhaps this works for some, but I am dubious of such claims, viewing any obstruction of movement as militating against freedom in the widest possible sense. It might work in reverse, as well; that your mind might imprison you, even as your body freely does what it wants or desires. Most people prefer and live by the second option.

The question is, as always, how much freedom is enough? Some people say they know the answer, but I am not one of them. I tend to view this as a question that has too many parameters to arrive at any universal consensus. But whatever it is, it is probably not enough for some humans and too much for others. There is always someone who’s unhappy at the work of politicians to either extend or limit freedoms.

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