When you can't think, write.
21st century. Technology. Power. Speed. Memes. Cryptocurrency, podcasts, artificial intelligence, augmented reality, virtual reality, non-fungible tokens, Tesla, electric cars, SpaceX, vaccines, quantum computing…we’ve traveled an incredible path of success and sacrifice. 80 years ago none of it would make any sense.
Try explaining cryptocurrency to your grandmother and you’ll get the idea.
Try explaining it to yourself. Chances are you won’t fare much better.
Things change, but never as they do now. Now. Now. Every refresh announces a new groundbreaking discovery forgotten the moment we scroll past. By the time you finish this essay, the world will have changed. You can bet your money on that.
There’s been less change between the time of the ancient Egypt and the industrial revolution than in the last half century. Our ancestors laboured at the same plough for millennia or two, and yet I’m on my 4th iPhone in 6 years.
Change is the currency of the 21st century, and it will only increase in pace. It’s here to stay. There’s no turning the clock, nor should we. Times change, that’s what they do. It’s the business of those alive to change with them.
Most of what we notice is the daily, irrelevant change — new app, new article, new trend, the latest outrage. The hollow stuff that sparkles. It catches the eye, but obscures the tectonic change transforming the very pillars of human societies.
We’ve always belonged to tribes and communities. Structures that support the daily life, the run-of-the-mill living with others. The familiar faces and the annoying neighbours. That’s the first pillar.
We create myths and religions, ideas that focus on the absolute morals and on answering that eternal question - what the hell happens after dying? Second pillar.
But nothing connects people more than a common enemy. This is the strongest of glues. The third pillar. It transforms a tribe into a weapon, ready to eradicate the latest threat. Look to any group, tribe, state, nation, empire, or even a football club. There’s always a rival, an enemy at hand, a menace to fear. Tried-and-true ways of maintaining group cohesion.
These three pillars provide structures of meaning, or collective dramas, as Ernest Becker so memorably put it. They imbue our lives with ready-made direction and purpose. You are born, inherit the idea that your tribe is meaningful, that your religion is meaningful, and that the enemy is not. You ingest these ideas with your mother’s milk. They’re a soft bed of moss wherein one can never think.
Who are you supposed to consider valuable, true, and despicable? There’s your tribe, your religion, and your enemy.
But times change. After renaissance, enlightenment, two World Wars, and technological advances, it has become difficult to take old collective dramas at face value.
To our ancestors, the tribe was everything. A chance of survival in a hostile world. They lived together on a limited stretch of land and knew each other well. This meant no privacy, but also reliable support. You traded one for the other in order to stay alive.
Today, tribes are different. The dynamic has changed. Atomized. We are less neighbours and more chance individuals who happen to rub shoulders. How many of us live in buildings where the neighbour next door is an unknown somebody? Someone you nod at in passing.
The power of religious institutions is frayed too. The idea of burning in hell forever might have been a stress in the Dark Ages, but today… it seems worse to wait in line without a smartphone.
Even the military has changed, especially in the West. Getting forcefully drafted into the army was once a concrete reality for men, but today there’s a better chance we’ll get drafted into the NBA. That’s only a slight exaggeration.
Old dramas have flaws, but they have virtues, too. The unwavering focus on the collective. They offered a direct way to be of service to others. A part of a larger whole. Belonging. A soft bed of unthinking moss.
The new dramas are different. Individual, almost entirely about one’s self. A drama of hard pragmatism, not played by a troupe of actors but unrelated individual actors in each other’s vicinity. Each sees only as far as his or her pragmatism allows. A one man show. A bed of rock and broken glass.
But… so what? We now live longer than ever, steeped in unthinkable comforts, even in Third World countries. You’re reading this on a tiny rectangle with more power than the early space rockets. The Internet gives you access to information and audiences Napoleon would’ve envied. The pen may well be mightier than the sword, but the “Send” button is a pen on steroids.
Today’s youth weaned on the Internet is maybe more powerful than any before. Instead of wasting time on the collective, we now treasure pragmatism. What is it that works best for me and my immediate family? That’s as far as the thinking goes.
There aren’t any engrossing narratives in which to couch our lives. No obvious way to carry out the duty toward the wider community. Where once we were a powerful, but unthinking force, today we are atoms. Today, all men are islands inside an indifferent archipelago. Today, everyone’s a lone wolf.
The wolf is a mystery. A frequent guest in mythology. A dweller of dreams. The symbol of both the esteemed hunter, and the hated killer. The wolf inhabits many cultures across the world, especially among the American Indians. In their eyes, the wolf is the epitome of excellence. Virtuous as an individual, but at the service to the pack.
“There are no stories among Indians of lone wolves”, writes Barry Lopez in Of Wolves and Men.
No matter how powerful, fast, skilled, or courageous an individual wolf may be, the wolf pack will outwit, out hunt, out manoeuvre or outlive the lone wolf. The same is true of the human species, no matter how much we pretend otherwise.
Humans are social animals prone to getting swept up into interesting stories. It’s an evolutionary advantage, allowing us to accomplish wonders. Even charismatic, popular individuals owe their fortune to dramas. The words like Tesla, Apple, climate change, climate change denial, gun control, football… all dramas. Attractive stories to get lost in.
What we need, more than anything, is a path toward a better story. A way for individuals to collaborate without becoming a mob — an unthinking, emotion driven, hateful or woke crowd fuming with the latest outrage. To become human wolves, able to cooperate while retaining the ability to think.
Dramas are important because they strengthen the ties between individuals. They are the sea between islands, the space between planets, the glue that holds it all together. We can’t live without them. Even pragmatism is a drama, pretending that it’s not.
Trying to live without a drama is a drama in itself. Homo Sapiens is a storyteller, a dramatist, spinning stories in which to couch herself and explain the world. Some stories — like religion, enmity, tribe — run too deep to disappear. They’re only undergoing change and will return in force. What will be their new qualities? If they’re changing, will they do so for the better or worse? And can a group make a conscious decision about the next drama?
For all their power, groups aren’t conscious. Not in the same way an individual is. Groups have a diffuse sense of responsibility and too little skin in the game. An individual bears the brunt of both. Dramas begin with a few individuals, but groups sustain them. Individualism is the catalyst, the dramatist behind the drama. The trigger, the spark, but the group is the fuel.
New dramas crop up every day. Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, White Power, Brexit, MAGA, feminism, conservatives, liberals, LGBTQIA+, Nazism, capitalism, communism… someone’s always telling a story, hoping it will catch on like so many stories before.
The only question is what will you do with the new drama when it arrives? When a new storyteller comes along, trying to purchase your devotion with emotion? Will you lend an ear or move along? What will be the better choice and how can you trust yourself to make it?
The only way I know of to answer that question is a random, boring, never-ending Tuesday afternoon. The kind that melts into itself and passes by without notice. An afternoon full of decisions and dilemmas no one ever sees or cares about. Three Tuesdays ago, what did you eat? What did you think about? What did you learn? Forget? What did you doubt and what did you accept without question? How many scrolls on Instagram? TikTok? Which messages did you reply to or didn’t? Which websites did you visit?
Tiny decisions, too insignificant to matter, but once they amass, once you collect enough of these Tuesdays… they define your life. They define who you are and what you respond to. Ultimately, they define which dramas will touch you and which pass unnoticed. Like Tetris, your choices create a pattern that defines what can happen in the future.
Will you choose a drama or find yourself lost in one?
Everything you desire exists. Maybe it’s better health, better relationships, or a different way you want to live your entire life. It all exists, without a doubt. It’s right there, you can see it, it glitters in the dark, fixating your eyes and your soul better than any permanent glue.
But you can’t get to it. It’s in the lair of a dragon, secure in the claws of a monstrous savage. In the belly of the beast. The enormous fiend purrs and curls, sleeping jealously atop your desires. Every ounce of your being yearns, but the dragon is fearsome. Her scales are thick, her tail a menace of spike and muscle. The ground steams hot, raked with claw marks, and the scent of fire lingers on the edge of everything. Your desires sparkle, but the dragon reigns supreme.
The fear in your stomach pushes against your spine, against your back, pushing you away. Away from here, away from now.
“Not today. Maybe tomorrow, just not today. Run away, stick your head in the sand.”
The dragon shifts and tongues of flame lick her underbelly. The heat of the moment hits you like an insurmountable firewall. How can you overcome? This hellish creature has what you want, but it can burn you to a crisp. You are tiny against the magnitude of your desires.
“Not today, not now.”
Still, you take a tiny step against the terror. A miserable step, really, a shuffle forward under the cover of darkness. Your heart booms in your ears, but you’re on the journey now. A tiny step, taken today, begins it.
Who knows where you’ll end up?
What is a government?
The Oxford Dictionary defines it as the group of people with the authority to govern a country or state. An unsatisfying definition. Circular. If a government is that which governs, then a blizzard is that which blizzards.
A government is a monopoly on violence. That’s it. Rules and regulations don’t matter if no one enforces them.
Violence is rooted in physical strength. There it finds its most primal expression. It’s the reason gladiators and MMA fighters draw in such audiences. Violence is feral, raw, and tantalising. It is the most direct exercise of government over another human being. Long before we understood ideas of human rights, we understood the threat of violence, injury, and death.
Violence is the language of our history. Violence between individuals, families, tribes, governments, nations, and religions drove most of our progress. We’ve only become ‘civilised’ in the last few centuries. Before that, the world was a hostile place, where living was a shady bet. To be human meant to strive for a monopoly on violence. It paid to be strong.
And men have physical strength.
No matter whether you look toward Asia, Europe, Africa, or any of the other continents, the tale remains the same. Men in positions of power. Men exercising that power. History is his story, built with physical strength, rooted in violence.
Women have held a secondary role. It varied from culture to culture, but it was diminished. Subservient to fathers and husbands. Women could not rely on physical strength, education, property, income, marriage, control over her body, suffrage, or equality in the eyes of the law and custom.
This power dis-balance is maybe best summarised in a bit of classic dark humour from The Dictator. When the protagonist Aladeen finds out his wife is with a child, he’s overjoyed and asks:
“Is it a boy or an abortion?”
The dis-balance deepened with the discovery of agriculture. Prior to widespread farming, people were a nomadic species that roamed the plains in search of food. Roles were more fluid because nothing was certain. No one had much because there was not much to be had.
This changed once we discovered agriculture. We stopped moving, inhabited a single place, and called it a home. Fields yielded an overabundance of food. We multiplied. First seeds of civilisation took root.
Thee novel life also invited novel problems. What happens when bad weather destroys the crops? Or when a hostile tribe arrives to the nearby valley? In the nomadic days, the groups could just move. Find a a better place. They were already on the move anyway. Constant migration was a constraint on violence. But you don’t migrate once you've called some place a home. You dig in. Erect defenses. Invent myths. Go out on raids. Wage war.
War parties demanded men. One reason is our innate physical strength and another is that if a man dies… well, a man has died. If a woman dies, then all the children she might have had die with her. That’s a harder blow to the tribe. This combination of immense value and a lack of physical strength cemented a woman’s role as a secondary being, one that needs protection. One that needs telling what to do.
Returning war parties had the upper hand because they carried food, slaves, land, weapons, gold. Assets and income. They could sell, buy, bargain, and hoard. Women could do none of that. They found themselves in a place of no property, no say, and no obvious road to freedom.
“The challenge to prosperity is precisely that predatory violence does pay well in some circumstances. War does change things. It changes the rules. It changes the distribution of assets and income. It even determines who lives and who dies. It is precisely the fact that violence does pay that makes it hard to control. “ from The Sovereign Individual
In a world where the primary language was direct violence, the women were mute.
Men's monopoly on violence did all the talking. Our sheer physical strength allowed us to enforce any arbitrary opinion. For example, that women are inferior to men. There's no grounds for this opinion, non whatsoever, except physical strength. In the words of John Stuart Mill, the inequality of rights between men and women has no other source than the law of the strongest.
Might is right. A monopoly on violence allows governance. Men governed women because women couldn’t enforce their disagreement, except through other men. Indirect means, secondary role, one which was forced to preoccupy itself with the wants and wishes of men.
Now, should the tables have been reversed? Women in power and men subjugated? Would our history have been better?
Maybe, maybe not. There’s no way to tell. We’ve never run that experiment. At most, we've proven that we can survive under a man’s governance, but there’s change in the air. The tables are reversing. Women are stronger, bolder now, abandoning old definitions of womanhood.
The repercussions are impossible to ignore. More men see that being capable of violence does not justify being violent. The voice of women is no longer mute. Yesterday it was muffled, today it’s clearer, and tomorrow… well, who knows what tomorrow brings? My wager is that women will develop into a center of power, of gravity.
A genuine counterpart to the male one.
History is replete with examples of men in power, both when it amounts to good and when it doesn’t. Women will increasingly find themselves in similar positions. When faced with choices of their male predecessors - war, pollution, science, religion, sacrifice, corruption, altruism, hate, envy, support, compassion, violence, discussion - what will women in power do?
What a question! There’s not a man on this planet who doesn't feel the ground shifting. Things changing, skin prickling.
And why? Because history is indelible. Every choice leaves a mark, and the mark of men is a troubled one. Like children caught in mischief, we now look around, trying to predict the consequences of our actions. The question “What will my parents do now that they’ve found me out?” changes to “What will women do now that they’ve found us out?”.
If women opt for the age-old rule of an eye for an eye… well, that’s one way to regress. Yes, men will be hurt by this, but so will women. They will have gambled away a chance to prove history could have been different, better, more compassionate. Men will hurt and women will too - morally.
And if women reject retribution and focus on mutual benefit, they will have proven the choices of men weren’t unavoidable. And that will hurt beyond measure… for who can bear being proven misguided? Only a healthy ego, one that can realize it's mistakes, learn, and rise again.
Which brings me to the title of this essay - The Rise of Men. I intend this in the sense of boats on the water, not as nostalgia after a patriarchy lost (to paraphrase Milton’s Paradise Lost).
The rise of men is unavoidable should women rise because a rising tide lifts all boats.
There’s a question burning in your mind. You want it to stay there, itches to get out. You clench your teeth, but it’s unstoppable.
No answer. You ask once more but the walls of your room remain silent. Stubborn. They give no answers.
You skim through books and titles and tables of contents. Nothing, no answer.
There’s a bottle on the bookshelf. You pour a glass, burn the stomach. Light a cigarette. Inhale junk food.
Fire up Netflix. Two seasons and 20 episodes later, there’s no answer.
Stack purchases on the credit card. Package after package after package.
Amass money. Watch the number in your bank account grown. Still, no answer.
The pandemic goes on forever, buzzing around your head like a swarm of bees.
There’s a mirror in your apartment. Look at it. There’s a face there. Recognize it. Wave. It will wave back. It will ask the same question.
You are not alone in this. There are other people in other apartments looking at other mirrors, asking the same thing.
“Why the f*** did this have to happen to me?”
Slow down. It’s not a good question. The universe doesn’t revolve around you. Things don’t happen to you.
I went to the library and leafed through a book. Watched a YouTube video. Listened to someone, somewhere, anyone, anywhere.
I found stories upon stories upon stories.
We are storytellers. There’s no getting away from it, especially if you try.
I close my eyes in meditation and inhale the peace of a still mind. But that’s the moment I realise my mind is anything but still. It’s a tornado, an earthquake, a gale, a raging sea, a pandemic, and a sweltering hot day - all at once
And why? Because it’s a story machine, a printer. It keeps spewing out stories. Endless lines of narrative dedicated to the eternal audience of one. Me.
Although I have no insight into your mind, I’m guessing your story is similar to mine. There it is again - your story. Mine. Hers. Theirs.
Everyone’s got one.
The early humans saw the moon and the stars and wondered. How come those hang in the sky? What is the sky? What is lightning? This is where mythology comes from, the oldest story. Attempts to make sense of the world, painted onto the walls of caves.
These attempts come in all flavours. The quirky, tense, easy, heavy, the horrific, destructive, and the ones that inspire. They whisper in our ears, little pixies, painting a picture of the world. Therein lies their power, and their danger.
Buying into a destructive story will destroy a life. I close my eyes and listen to the narrative in my head. Some days it’s positive and others… it’s not. The world constricts, and it’s harder to breathe.
But the wind eventually blows. Another story takes up lead and life brightens. It’s a cycle. No life is always on the bright side. The more someone pretends so, the darker their story.
It’s important to choose an empowering, positive, optimistic story. Something that runs on its own, in the unconscious. Whispering in your ear: "Yes, it gets difficult, but you’ll find a way. Sort it out. Crack the problem."
Many stories come from childhood when we are most impressionable. I think back to my childhood, to the good stories, and the rough. Children are tiny spiders, weaving the stories that float about into a spiderweb of personal experience.
The rest of life is really about understanding the spiderweb and telling stories that won’t kill you before you die. And while this may be hard, remember that it is possible. Remember who first weaved the spiderweb.
Who gets to tell your story.
There’s a study on addiction done by a Canadian psychologist Bruce K. Alexander. He explored the effects of addiction on lab rats that live in wire cages.
To begin the experiment, Bruce installed two water drips for rats to drink from. One contained plain water. The other had water spiced with morphine.
The rats preferred the spiced one. For the sake of getting high, they abandoned play, socialisation, sex, even food. Many of them punched the morphine button until the point of overdose.
Death by self-administration.
Bruce then thought of another experiment. Together with his colleagues, he constructed the Rat Park - an environment 200 times the size of the normal rat cage, filled with boxes to hide in, natural materials, wood shavings, playthings, other rats, and two water drips.
The point was to see whether nature and social connection affected addiction.
The Rat Park rats were, on the whole, a great deal less addicted to morphine. They drank more plain water, socialised, mated, and lived better lives overall, at least for the duration of the experiment.
Some, like the guy in this TED talk, concluded that the environment is the only factor causing addiction, that genetics has nothing to do with it. This is a lovely narrative, an unproven story that has taken the experiment’s findings too far.
What’s proven though, in line with the experiment, is that the environment does affect the severity of addiction. Rats in wire cages find it harder to resist the seduction of heavy drugs compared to the rats on the outside.
Now, addiction comes in many flavours. Morphine, heroin, cocaine - those are the extremes. But other, more quiet addictions abound. Distraction, alcohol, overeating, shopping, smartphones, pornography, negative thought, negative self-image, or even blaming others rather than taking responsibility, and so on.
Take your pick. Add to the list. Everyone has something, even before the pandemic locked us in this human version of a rat cage.
What the Rat Park experiment suggests is that nature - this readily available Human Park - can help silence the demons of any addiction.
If anything above resonates with you, try and see if you can crack open the door.
It took me an hour to write the first word for this piece. Words didn’t come flying out of me like they do for other, more prolific writers.
I want to be prolific - for my craft to resemble a fountain fed from an inexhaustible subterranean reservoir, while my audience enjoys the wonderful play of water.
This is the case, in reality. There is a vast reserve of energy somewhere deep inside me. I’ve tapped into it plenty of times to know that it exists, unashamedly so.
The plumbing issue, so to speak, happens between the reservoir and the fountain. Instead of a magnificent jet of water, the spout gives a trickle.
Something like trying to pee by contracting the wrong muscles. It doesn’t work.
I know the solution even as I offer my complaints. I know I just have to sit with it. No words will come as long as I’m jittering about, attentive to everything and nothing. Refusing to string together two words, two sentences, two paragraphs, or - God forbid - two entire pages.
But the words come, they do. They want to come. Their very nature urges them to burst out of the writer’s pen. But only after the writer has squeezed the correct muscles. Not before.
And the muscle in question is patience. Perseverance, stubbornness, the simple willingness to sit with it. There’s the desk, the paper, the pen. I know what I have to do.
“Oh, but the writer’s block yadda yadda blah blah.” - screams every writer ever, including me.
Oh, shut up. Words come. They always do. Words have never failed me during my quiet writing career, except, of course, the times I failed them.
That’s something to mull over. Words cannot fail me. Only I can fail words.
Well, look at that. The plumbing problem’s gone. The words come, now that I’ve committed a grain of attention to my craft.
Words cannot fail me. Only I can fail words. There’s something there. A suggestion, suspicion, shadow, speck, smidge, shred of an idea.
What else would resolve itself if I decide to pay attention? To sit with the discomfort, with the roaring thoughts begging for another overdose of distraction. Persevere long enough until the doors, the pipes to the reservoir...cough.
And water plays once again.
Family, nation, religion, politics, sports.
We belong to groups. Groups change us.
This is as it should be. No individual has all the answers (including you). Other people should change us. To avoid this is to become ossified, petrified, stupefied. A fossil.
Allow others to change your thinking.
Slow down now.
Allow others to change your thinking, but don’t let them replace it.
Sometimes, to ensure belonging, we identify with groups. Our thinking starts to mirror the “party line”. This is the threat of groups. Instead of thinking for ourselves, we swallow the group beliefs wholesale. We become mascots.
If you are 100% aligned with any group’s thinking – you’re not thinking.
Groups are necessary, valuable, and powerful. They shelter, nurture, make us feel wanted. They are also vicious when taken too seriously. No group has a monopoly on truth. Your religion is not the one true one. Neither is your sports club. Your nation is not the chosen one. Your political party is not the safe keeper of right or wrong. They’d just all prefer you to think so.
Whatever you do, don’t let them replace your thinking.
P.S. Don’t let anyone replace it, including me – a guy you likely don’t know and have never seen in your life.
I asked a friend this question:
“How much of my money should I invest and how much to keep on hand?
Seeing how it depends on the context, he answered with a question of his own:
“How much money can you invest without losing your sleep at night?”
Sneaky bastard, forcing me to think on my own!
Anyway, I thanked him for the question and went over into the metaphorical mountains to mull over it.
How much am I willing to invest? My mind soon left the world of investing and began thinking about everything that causes me to lose sleep at night. Sleep is for me the first victim in any stressful situation. I imagine some of you are nodding in agreement.
I feel your pain, sister.
Anyway, back to the mountain. While I braved the winds and the wolves, this idea of sleep changed. A peaceful mind sleeps at night. A restless mind tosses, turns, sweats, and scrolls the phone.
Will my desires ruin my peace of mind?
Would buying a car ruin your peace of mind? Would taking out a loan? A lousy friendship? Changing the workplace or going back to school? How much is your peace of mind worth compared to status, money, respect, sex appeal, or whatever else you might desire?
“If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. […] Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.” - David Foster Wallace
It’s crucial to value the right thing, and peace of mind is one of them.
So, if something threatens to ruin it, then you know:
It is too expensive.
The title above would be a perfect introduction into a listicle full of inspirational quotes written in a lovely font and superimposed over a backdrop of majestic mountains.
However, I intend to absolutely steer clear of that sort of communication. To get to the deep, hidden heart of things, the means of communication have to be slow, deliberate, and demand an investment of time.
So here we go.
Freedom is a powerful word. Not only does it embody the human striving to dissolve chains, but it also contains a past tense. The tense realization that if we are now free, it is only because we have once been enslaved. Freedom is an idea to mourn if lost, cherish if had, and hoped for in the vague tomorrow.
It is also an often misused word.
History is a smoldering battleground of people who have briefly demanded freedom before their heads were cut off. Few things cause as much death as the desire to be one’s own master.
Then there are people who most often did the cutting, either literally or by proxy. Dictators of all kinds, historical or contemporary, have tried to chop off each and every head that had dared to demand freedom. The philosophy of kings and dictators is always the same:
“There is only one kind of freedom possible and, conveniently, it happens to be the one I humbly propose at the tip of a bloody sword.” — Random Dictator
If you step back far enough and survey the entirety of human history, you’ll see that it is like a playground see-saw, albeit with higher stakes. One side demands freedom, the other utter submission, and on we go, again and again, up and down, an endless game of see-saw.
But, the game is rigged. It is rigged in favor of the side that demands freedom. Yes, they die, by their hundreds and thousands, but each death adds a little weight, a little more burden for the dictator to carry. Eventually, the dictator is outweighed and launched into the air.
Usually, that’s when the party demanding freedom becomes the oppressor, until it, too, is tossed off the see-saw. That is how we, as a species, have traveled from outright slavery under the king or the Dear Leader, to the modern-day ideas of human rights. After much blood, and many rolling heads, we are now freer than ever before.
And therein lies our trouble.
There are two kinds of freedom, two sides of the same coin. The negative freedom, which is the freedom from something, like the revolutions in France, Jewish catastrophe in Nazi Germany, or the crumbling of the Soviet regime. It is the urge in people to get away from something.
The other, positive kind, is not only the freedom from but the freedom to do something, like the women’s movement that sought the freedom to vote.
The negative freedom is, on a minute scale, similar to the emancipation of a child from the authority of parents. It is necessary and exhilarating, but it also brings with it a sense of anxiety and hopelessness. Who hasn’t felt the occasional terror of being completely responsible for his or her own conduct? In many ways, it is easier to continue being dependant on an external authority, because it allows for avoidance of responsibility.
That is what happens when masses of people gain freedom from something. Necessity, exhilaration, excitement, but also dread because it is one thing to be free from the authority of others, but quite another to embrace the freedom and become one’s own authority. Negative freedom talks of authority and oppression, and positive freedom requires embracing responsibility.
That’s when people begin to feel the tyranny of freedom, the demand to make one’s own choices and to be responsible, day in and day out.
It is not easy.
It is the moment when we begin to want to be free again, but only this time we want freedom from freedom.
“The frightened individual seeks for somebody or something to tie his self to; he cannot bear to be his own individual self any longer, and he tries frantically to get rid of it and to feel security again by the elimination of this burden: the self.” — Erich Fromm
We want to be told what to do and be lead by a strong hand. A parent, a partner, or a pharaoh. The new authority will never appear exactly the same as the old one, but its underlying function remains the same — to alleviate the uncertainty of everyday life by providing a firm code of conduct. In other words, let the authority decide.
I only follow orders.
Now the true trouble arises. To assume responsibility, you have to make a choice. To abandon responsibility, you also have to make a choice.
What is this ability to choose if not freedom? Even unfreedom requires a free choice, hence we cannot truly be unfree. There can be no circumstances in which you are not making a choice (except outright mental illness and unaccountability). Whether it’s the choice to assume responsibility or to abandon it and follow orders doesn’t really matter. What matters is that you have made a choice and out of that choice springs your future. In other words:
At the heart of what happens to you, is you.
So what are we to do with this? Freedom, far from being the romantic ideal we find in the movies, proves to be a troublesome burden. Its work does not end with Mel Gibson’s dramatic shouting in Braveheart, that’s where it begins. To want freedom is easy, to win it is difficult, and to maintain it is the hardest task the human animal can face. That is why we often wish to be rid of it — so that the burden of thinking, choice-making, and consequences would fall on someone else. We can remain marionettes.
The exact moment our wish becomes true is the exact moment when the worst aspects of humanity become possible — utter subservience to authority, destructiveness, conformity. It all arises from your and my choice to suppress our own freedom in favor of following orders. That is the butt of the joke.
And where does it all leaves us?
If what I’ve written above is true, it leaves us, of course, with a new choice. Remember, we cannot be unfree, because even to be unfree requires a free choice.
The only real question then is what that choice will be — abandonment of responsibility and submission to authority, or the acceptance of the burden of your own actions so that, when the river of the next mass-delusion begins to rage and foam, you and I might find ourselves walking upstream.