When we use the term “freedom”, we almost always use it in a particular way – to describe how able we are to do certain things without interference from others.
We talk about the freedom to vote for our leaders, the freedom to practise a religion, the freedom to work a job, the freedom to own land, or the freedom to run a business.
These freedoms – which, throughout history, have been enjoyed chiefly by rich, white males – are increasingly open to more and more humans. We are still a long way from the day where every human being will enjoy the same basic freedoms from birth, but we are nevertheless on our way. The brave people who fought for our right to enjoy these freedoms deserve every scrap of praise they get.
But we do those brave people a disservice if, grateful as we are for what they’ve done, we neglect to focus on a much more powerful and important type of freedom.
The two sides of the freedom coin
Physical freedom, as detailed above, is a great start, but it has one fatal flaw: It can only be granted to you by an outside party. You can’t just “take” it.
If you weren’t lucky enough to be born with a particular silver spoon in your mouth, the only way to enjoy certain freedoms is to passively wait for permission to be given to you, or to actively fight for that permission. Either way, you must seek permission before you can ever enjoy that freedom.
Personal freedom, on the other hand, is what happens when you own your very self. You own your thoughts, your deeds, and their consequences. And the best part is that you don’t have to wait for anybody to give you permission to enjoy this freedom – personal freedom is 100% in your hands.
Personal freedom role models
Frederick Douglass. Victor Frankl. Ruben Hurricane Carter.
One a slave, one an inmate in several concentration camps during World War II, and one a heavyweight champion boxer wrongly convicted of triple homicide. All three of them had their physical freedoms taken away from them for the cruellest reasons, over which they had no control.
Douglass – born into slavery – never even knew basic freedoms to begin with.
Frankl – by sheer virtue of being born Jewish – was sent to a concentration camp.
And Carter – the victim of a trial where no concrete evidence linked him to the crime, and where two thieves were given reduced sentences for their bullshit testimony against him – was given three life sentences.
In the most abject of circumstances imaginable, all three of these men discovered something which remains just as rare and radical today: personal freedom is available to you at all times, and only you can give it, or take it away, from yourself.
What’s the point if you’re not free?
We live in the freest time in human history – from a physical freedom perspective – but if we don’t learn to grant ourselves personal freedom, are we actually free?
What’s the point in being able to buy all the stuff we want if it we end up paranoid and fearful about losing it?
What’s the point in being physically free if we spend all day working in a office to pay our bills, and all evening in front of the TV trying to forget about our day at the office?
What’s the point in being able to vote in elections every four years or so if we don’t bother to vote with our daily actions on the other 1,459 days?
Personal freedom comes from within
Personal freedom – true freedom – has absolutely nothing to do with possessions, or indeed anything of a physical nature.
It is a function of the relationship you have with yourself. When you grant yourself ownership of your thoughts and deeds, and their consequences, you are free. When you remain shackled by what others think, or by what you are and are not allowed to do, think, or feel, you are not free.
You could be a slave, like Douglass. You could be in a concentration camp, like Frankl. You could be in prison, like Carter. But if you own yourself, you are freer than all the “free” people in the world.