Rollo May
What Freedom Is Not

We can understand more clearly what freedom is if we first look at what it is not. Freedom is not rebellion. Rebellion is a normal interim move toward freedom; it occurs to some extent when the little child is trying to exercise his muscles of independence through the power to say "No;" it occurs more clearly when the adolescent is trying to become independent of parents. In adolescence (as possibly in other stages too) the strength of the rebelliousness against what the parents stand for is often excessive because the young person is fighting his own anxiety at stepping out into the world. When parents say "Don't" he often must scream defiance at them, because that "don't" is exactly what he feels the craven side of himself is saying, the side of himself which is tempted to take refuge behind the walls of parental protection.

But rebellion is often confused with freedom itself. It becomes a false port in the storm because it gives the rebel a delusive sense of being really independent. The rebel forgets that rebellion always presupposes an outside structure - of rules, laws, expectations - against which one is rebelling; and one's security, sense of freedom and strength are dependent actually on this external structure. They are "borrowed," and can be taken away like a bank loan which can be called in at any moment. Psychologically many persons stop at this stage of rebellion. Their sense of inner moral strength comes only from knowing what moral conventions they do not live up to; they get an oblique sense of conviction by proclaiming their atheism and disbelief.

Since the rebel gets his sense of direction and vitality from attacking the existing standards and mores, he does not have to develop standards of his own. Rebellion acts as a substitute for the more difficult process of struggling through to one's own autonomy, to new beliefs, to the state where one can lay new foundations on which to build. The negative forms of freedom confused freedom with license, and overlooked the fact that freedom is never the opposite to responsibility.

Another common error is to confuse freedom with planlessness. Some writers these days argue that if the system of economic laissez-faire - "letting everyone do as he wishes" - were altered as history marches on, our freedom would vanish with it. The argument of these authors often goes something like this: "Freedom is like a living thing. It is indivisible; and if the individual's right to own the means of production is taken away, he no longer has the freedom to earn his living in his own way. Then he can have no freedom at all."

Well, if these writers were right it would indeed be unfortunate - for who then could be free? Not you nor I nor anyone else except a very small group of persons - for in this day of giant industries, only the minutest fraction of citizens can own the means of production anyway. Laissez- faire was a great idea, as we have seen, in earlier centuries; but times change, and almost everyone nowadays earns his living by virtue of belonging to a large group, be it an industry, or a university, or a labor union. It is a vastly more interdependent world, this 'one world" of our twentieth century, than the world of the entrepreneurs of earlier centuries or of our own pioneer days; and freedom must be found in the context of economic community and the social value of the world, not in everyone's setting up his own factory or university.

Fortunately, this economic interdependence need not destroy freedom if we keep our perspective. The pony express was a great idea, also, back in the days when sending a letter from coast to coast was an adventure. But certainly we are thankful - complain as we may about mail service these days that now, when we write a letter to a friend on the coast, we don't have to give more than a passing thought to its method of travel; we drop it in the box with a stamp and forget about it. We are free, that is, to devote more time and concern to our message to our friend, our intellectual and spiritual interchange in the letter, because in a world made smaller by specialized communication we don't have to be so concerned about how the letter gets there. We are more free intellectually and spiritually precisely because we accept our position in economic interdependence with our fellow human beings.

I have often wondered why there is such anxiety and such an outcry that freedom will be lost unless we preserve the old laissez-faire practices. Is not one of the reasons the fact that modern man has so thoroughly surrendered inward psychological and spiritual freedom to the routine of his work and to the mass patterns of social conventions that he feels the only vestige of freedom left to him is the opportunity for economic aggrandizement? Has he made the freedom to compete with his neighbor economically a last remnant of individuality, which therefore must stand for the whole meaning of freedom? That is to say, if the citizen of the suburbs could not buy a new car each year, build a bigger house, and paint it a slightly different color from his neighbor's, might he feel that his life would have no purpose, and that he would not exist as a person? The great weight placed on competitive, laissez-faire freedom seems to me to show how much we have lost a real understanding of freedom.

To be sure, freedom is indivisible; and this is precisely why one cannot identify it with a particular economic doctrine or segment of life, least of all a segment of the past; it is a living thing, and its life comes precisely from how the whole person relates himself to the community of his fellow human beings. Freedom means openness, a readiness to grow; it means being flexible, ready to change for the sake of greater human values. To identify freedom with a given system is to deny freedom - it crystallizes freedom and turns it into dogma. To cling to a tradition, with the defensive plea that if we lose something that worked well in the past we will have lost all, neither shows the spirit of freedom nor makes for the future growth of freedom. We shall keep faith with those courageous men, the pioneer industrialists, the men of commerce and the capitalists of the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries in the Western world, as well as with the independent frontiers- men of our own country, if we emulate their courage, dare to think boldly as they did, and plan the most effective economic measures for our day as they did for theirs.

This book is on psychology rather than economics or sociology; and we touch on the larger picture only because man always lives in a social world, and that world conditions his psychological health. We simply propose that our social and economic ideal be that society which gives the maximum opportunity for each person in it to realize himself, to develop and use his potentiafities and to labor as a human being of dignity giving to and receiving from his fellow men. The good society is, thus, the one which gives the greatest freedom to its people freedom defined not negatively and defensiyely, but positively, as the opportunity to realize ever greater human values.

What Freedom Is

Freedom is man's capacity to take a hand in his own development. It is our capacity to mold ourselves. Freedom is the other side of consciousness of self; if we were not able to be aware of ourselves, we would be pushed along by instinct or the automatic march of history, like bees or mastodons. But by our power to be conscious of ourselves, we can call to mind how we acted yesterday or last month, and by learning from these actions we can influence, even if ever so little, how we act today. And we can picture in imagination some situation tomorrow - say a dinner date, or an appointment for a job, or a Board of Directors meeting - and by turning over in fantasy different alternatives for acting, we can pick the one which will do best for us.

Consciousness of self gives us the power to stand outside the rigid chain of stimulus and response, to pause, and by this pause to throw some weight on either side, to cast some decision about what the response will be.

That consciousness of self and freedom go together is shown in the fact that the less self-awareness a person has, the more he is unfree. That is to say, the more he is controlled by inhibitions, repressions, childhood conditionings which he has consciously "forgotten" but which still drive him unconsciously, the more he is pushed by forces over which he has no control. When persons first come for psychotherapeutic help, for example, they generally complain that they are "driven" in any number of ways; they have sudden anxieties or fears or are blocked in studying or working without any appropriate reason, They are unfree - that is, bound and pushed by unconscious patterns.

As the person gains more consciousness of self, his range of choices and his freedom proportionately increase. Freedom is cumulative; one choice made with an element of freedom makes greater freedom possible for the next choice. Each exercise of freedom enlarges the circumference of the circle of one's self.

We do not mean to imply that there are not an infinite number of deterministic influences in anyone's life. If you wished to argue that we are determi ned by our bodies, by our economic situation, by the fact that we happened to be born into the twentieth century in America, and so on, I would agree with you; and I would add many more ways in which we are psychologically determined, particularly by tendencies of which we are unconscious. But no matter how much one argues for the deterministic viewpoint, he still must grant that there is a margin in which the alive human being can be aware of what is determining him. And even if only in a very minute way to begin with, he can have some say in how he will react to the deterministic factors.

Freedom is thus shown in how we relate to the detetministic realities of life. If you set out to write a sonnet, you run up against all kinds of recalcitrant realities in the laws of rhyme and scanning, and in the necessity of fitting words together; or if you build a house, you confront all kinds of determining elements in bricks and mortar and lumber. It is essential that you know your material and accept its limits. But what you say in the sonnet is uniquely yours. The pattern and the style in which you build your house are products of how you, with an element of freedom, use the reality of the given materials.

The arguments of "freedom versus determinism" are on a false basis, just as it is false to think of freedom as a kind of isolated electric button called "free will." Freedom is shown in according one's life with realities - realities as simple as the needs for rest and food, or as ultimate as death. Meister Eckhart expressed this approach to freedom in one of his astute psychological counsels, "When you are thwarted, it is your own attitude that is out of order." Freedom is involved when we accept the realities not by blind necessity but by choice. This means that the acceptance of limitations need not at all be a "giving up," but can and should be a constructive act of freedom; and it may well be that such a choice will have more creative results for the person than if he had lot had to struggle against any limitation whatever. The man who is devoted to freedom does not waste time fighting reality; instead, as Kierkegaard remarked, he "extols reality."

Let us take as an illustration a situation in which people are very much controlled, namely when they are sick with a disease like tuberculosis. In almost every action they are rigidly conditioned by the facts that they are in a sanatorium under a strict regime, have to rest such and such time, can walk only fifteen minutes a day, and so on. But there is all the difference in the world in how persons relate to the reality of the disease. Some give up, and literally invite their own deaths. Others do what they are supposed to do, but they continually resent the fact that "nature" or "God" has given them such a disease and though they outwardly obey, they inwardly rebel against the rules. These patients generally don't die, but neither do they get well. Like rebels in any area in life, they remain on a plateau perpetu- ally marking time.

Other patients, however, frankly confront the fact that they are very seriously ill; they let this tragic fact sink into consciousness through plentiful hours of contemplation as they lie in beds on the sanatorium porch. They seek in their consciousness of self to understand what was wrong in their lives beforehand that they should have succumbed to the illness. They use the cruelly deterministic fact of being sick as an avenue to new self-knowledge. These are the patients who can best choose and affirm the methods and the self discipline - which never can be put into rules, but vary from day to day - which will bring them victoriously through the disease. They are the ones who not only achieve physical health, but who also are ultimately enlarged, enriched and strengthened by the experience of having had the disease. They affirm their elemental free- dom to know and to mold deterministic events; they meet a severely deterministic fact with freedom. It is doubtful whether anyone really achieves health who does not responsibly choose to be healthy, and whoever does so choose becomes more integrated as a person by virtue of having had a disease.

Through his power to survey his life, man can transcend the immediate events which determine him. Whether he has tuberculosis or is a slave like the Roman philosopher Epictetus or a prisoner condemned to death, he can still in his freedom choose how he will relate to these facts. And how he relates to a merciless realistic fact like death can be more important for him than the fact of death itself. Freedom is most dramatically illustrated in "heroic" actions, like Socrates' decision to drink the hemlock rather than compromise; but even more significant is the undra- matic, steady daytoday exercise of freedom on the part of any person developing toward psychological and spiritual integration in a distraught society like our own.

Thus freedom is not just the matter of saying "Yes" or "No" to a specific decision; it is the power to mold and create ourselves. Freedom is the capacity, to use Nietzsche's phrase, "to become what we truly are."

"Choosing One's Self"

Freedom does not come automatically; it is achieved. And it is not gained at a single bound; it must be achieved each day. As Goethe forcefully expresses the ultimate lesson learned by Faust:

"Yes! to this thought I hold with firm persistence;
The last result of wisdom stamps it true:
He only earns his freedom and existence
Who daily conquers them anew."

The basic step in achieving inward freedom is "choosing one's self." This strangesounding phrase of Kierkegaard's means to affirm one's responsibility for one's self and one's existence. It is the attitude which is opposite to blind momentum or routine existence; it is an attitude of aliveness and decisiveness; means that one recognizes that he exists in his particular spot in the universe, and he accepts the responsibility for this existence. This is what Nietzsche meant by the "will to live" - not simply the instinct for self-preservation, but the will to accept the fact that one is one's self, and to accept responsibility for fulfilling one's own destiny, which in turn implies accepting the fact that one must make his basic choices himself.

We can see more clearly what choosing one's self and one's existence means by looking at the opposite - choosing not to exist, that is to commit suicide. The significance of suicide lies not in the fact that people actually kill themselves in any large numbers. It is indeed a very rare occurrence except among psychotics. But psychologically and spirituahy the thought of suicide has a much wider meaning. There is such a thing as psychological suicide in which one does not take his own life by a given act, but dies because he has chosen - perhaps without being entirely aware of it - not to live. Not infrequently one hears of incidents like that in the disaster not long ago of a sinking fishing boat. A young man in his twenties clung in the choppy waters to a floating timber with an older man for an hour or so, and talked to the older man about how he felt too young to die. Finally, with the words, "I'm finished; goodbye, Pop," he let go of the timber and sank. Of course we do not know the inner psychological processes in the fact that a person, apparently with some strength left, seems to give up and die; but it is a fair guess that some inner tendency not to choose to live is in operation.

Another illustration is in the lives of persons who have dedicated themselves to certain tasks, such as taking care of a sick loved one or finishing an important work. They keep going under difficult circumstances as though they had determined they "had" to live; and then when the task is completed, when "success" is attained, they proceed to die as though by some inner decision. Kierkegaard wrote twenty books in fourteen years, completed them at the early age of forty-two, and then - we almost say "in conclusion" - he took to his bed and died.

These ways of choosing not to live show how crucial it can be to choose to live. It is doubtful whether anyone really begins to live, that is, to affirm and choose his own existence, until he has frankly confronted the terrifying fact that he could wipe out his existence but chooses not to. Since one is free to die, he is free also to live. The mass patterns of routine are broken; he no longer exists as an accidental result of his parents having conceived him, of his growing up and living as an infinitesimal item on the treadmill of cause and effect, marrying, begetting new children, growing old and dying. Since he could have chosen to die but chose not to, every act thereafter has to some extent been made possible because of that choice. Every act then has its special element of freedom.

People often actually go through the experience of committing psychological suicide in some sector of their lives. We shall present two illustrations which we hope will make the basic point clear. A woman believes she cannot live unless a certain man loves her. When he marries someone else, she contemplates suicide. In the course of her meditating on the idea for some days, she fantasies, "Well, assume I did do it." But then she suddenly thinks, "After l'vedone it, it would still be good to be alive in other ways - the sun still shines, water is still cool to the body, one can still make things," and the suggestion creeps in that there may still be other people to love. So she decides to live. Assuming the decision is made for positive reasons rather than just the fear of dying or inertia, the conflict may actually have given her some new freedom. It is as though the part of her which clung to the man did commit suicide, and as a result she can begin life anew. This is the increased aliveness Edna St. Vincent Mi Ilay describes in "Renascence":

	Ah, up from the ground sprang I
	And hailed the earth with such a cry
	As is not heard save from a man
	Who has been dead, and lives again.

Or a young man feels he can never be happy unless he gains some fame. He begins to realize that he is competent and valuable, let us say as an assistant professor; but the higher he gets on the ladder the clearer he sees that there are always persons above him, that "many are called but few are chosen," that very few people gain fame anyway, and that he may end up just a good and competent teacher. He might then feel that he would be as insignificant as a grain of sand, his life meaningless, and he might as well not be alive. The idea of suicide creeps into his mind in his more despondent moods. Sooner or later he, too, thinks, "All right, assume I've done it - what then?" And it suddenly dawns on him that, if he came back after the suicide, there would be a lot left in life even if one were not famous. He then chooses to go on living as it were, without the demand for fame. It is as though the part of him which could not live without fame does commit suicide. And in killing the demand for fame, he may also realize as a byproduct that the things which yield lasting joy and inner security have very little to do with the external and fickle standards of public opinion anyway. He may then appreciate the more than flippant wisdom in Ernest Hemingway's remark, "Who the hell wants fame over the weekend? I want to write well." And finally, as a result of the partial suicide, he may clarify his own goals and arrive at more of a feeling for the joy which comes from fulfilling his own potentialities, from finding and teaching the truth as he sees it and adding his own unique contribution arising from his own integrity rather than the slavery to fame.

We would emphasize again that the actual process of these partial psychological suicides is much more complex than these illustrations imply. Actually some people - perhaps most people - move in the opposite direction when they have to renounce a demand; they retreat, constrict their lives and become less free. But we wish only to make clear that there is a positive aspect to partial suicide, and that the dying of one attitude or need may be the other side of the birth of something new. One can choose to kill a neurotic strategy, a dependency, a clinging, and then find that he can choose to live as a freer self. The woman in our example would no doubt find with clearer insight that her so-called love for the man for whom she would have committed suicide was really not love at all, but clinging parasitism balanced by design to have power over the man. A "dying" to part of one's self is often followed by a heightened awareness of life, a heightened sense of possibility.

When one has consciously chosen to live, two other things happen. First, his responsibility for himself takes on a new meaning. He accepts responsibility for his own life not as something with which he has been saddled, a burden forced upon him, but as something he has chosen himself. For this person himself now exists as a result of a decision he himself has made. To be sure, any thinking person realizes in theory that freedom and responsibility go together; if one is not free, one is an automaton and there is obviously no such thing as responsibility, and if one cannot be responsible for himself, he can't be trusted with freedom. But when one has "chosen himself," this partnership of freedom and responsibility becomes more than a nice idea; he experiences it in his own pulse; in his choosing himself, he becomes aware that he has chosen personal freedom and responsibility for himself in the same breath.

The other thing which happens is that discipline from the outside is changed into self-discipline. He accepts discipline not because it is commanded - for who can command someone who has been free to take his own life? - but because he has chosen with greater freedom what he wants to do with his own life, and discipline is necessary for the sake of the values he wishes to achieve. This self-discipline can be given fancy names - Nietzsche called it "loving one's fate" and Spinoza spoke of obedience to the laws of life. But whether bedecked by fancy terms or not, it is, I believe, a lesson everyone progressively learns in his struggle toward maturity.

Questions to Consider
What repercussions does this view of freedom have for those attending and being educated in the university?
What is actually required to be free? The possibility of determinism places great limits on our freedom. Are May's arguments against it sufficient?
The pseudo-freedom, according to May, that is rebellion seems to be the pervasive attitude concerning individuality, especially among us university students. Is May's view accurate and, if so, is there any to curb such mentality?
How does one's concept of freedom affect one's attitude toward education?

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