At first glance, this may look like an article about the familiar political debate surrounding civil liberties and national security issues. That, however, is a topic for another day. Today, I’m interested in talking about the themes of freedom and security more broadly, and how the concepts play into the many ways we choose to live our day-to-day lives. It seems to me that as our modern lives are filled with an unprecedented level of choice, we are prone to slip into a state of anxiety as we realize the unprecedented level of uncertainty that comes with the territory. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard described this state as “the dizziness of freedom,” and my guess is that this dizziness is palpable for many of us in the times we are living.
Today, people in Western society live in the freest societies that have ever existed, at least in terms of freedom to choose one’s work, religious or philosophical beliefs, romantic lifestyle and/or partner, and friends. Not long ago in human history, many of these things would have been determined by the culture and social class one was born into. Indeed, in many parts of the world today, specific religious affiliation is mandated by the state, and arranged marriages are still the norm. For most of human history, however, force was not necessary. It was simply understood to be common sense that since my father was a blacksmith, I’ll be a blacksmith. Since everybody around me is a Christian, I’m a Christian. My lifelong marriage will be arranged by my family and my friends would be neighbors of similar social status. While these conditions are unimaginable and even oppressive by today’s standards, people of the past had little cause for anxiety around these major aspects of their lives. Instead, they felt a strong sense of rootedness in community and and a sense of belonging and security that, however imperfectly, met many deep human needs.
As these core aspects of life have been relegated to the realm of human choice, the culture of the marketplace has permeated them. As any educated millennial in a field outside of STEM is aware, work is difficult to come by–never mind meaningful work that earns a secure living over the course of a lifetime. Religions compete with one another – and, more so than ever, with atheism and programmatic secularism – for our attention by making their take on various hot button issues known to the public, often fueled more by the narratives of the corporate media than scripture, tradition, or even spiritual experience. We window shop for romantic partners on dating apps, and increasingly don’t have the attention span to really get to know each other before moving on to the next one. We can now be friends with anybody we like, regardless of race or class; we have hundreds or even thousands of social media connections, and yet people in Western society today are more lonely than ever. In The Wisdom of Insecurity, Alan Watts describes the situation as follows:
For man seems to be unable to live without myth, without the belief that the routine and drudgery, the pain and fear of this life have some meaning and goal in the future. At once new myths come into being – political and economic myths with extravagant promises of the best of futures in the present world. These myths give the individual a certain sense of meaning by making him part of a vast social effort, in which he loses something of his own emptiness and loneliness. Yet the very violence of these political religions betrays the anxiety beneath them – for they are but men huddling together and shouting to give themselves courage in the dark.
It is now impossible for us to go back to the security of the past. It would be impossible, in our new globalized world, for us to take for granted the “givens” of existence that our ancestors did. Religious pluralism is a reality, and the only “unifying” principles that seem to impact the life of nearly everyone on the planet are those of the global market. Indeed, for many, the market has taken on a mythic quality. In contemporary Western culture, most of the rites of passage we’re all meant to aspire to are economic in nature: getting a degree, getting a job, getting promoted, buying a house, buying a car, going on vacation, saving for retirement, and leaving a nice inheritance for your children, who will continue the cycle.
Given that Kierkegaard was writing in pre-industrial Denmark, his words seem almost prophetic. This is, indeed, a “dizzying” time we are living in. We have never had the opportunity to make so many choices, and yet, paradoxically, the choices we are offered feel increasingly overwhelming and increasingly vacuous. At the same time, the cultural forces that used to provide for strong sense of purpose and a sense of “being at home” with one’s lot in life are waning, and we can no longer take quaint notions of security in life seriously.
Pessimism can become seductive at this point, so it is worth remembering Winston Churchill’s words: “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” But how can one not be pessimistic when one feels such anxiety? While we may have been taught that anxiety is supposed to make us immobile, become cynical, and lose hope for a better future, Kierkegaard had the opposite impression. In The Concept of Anxiety, he writes:
Whoever has learned to be anxious in the right way has learned the ultimate. … Anxiety is freedom’s possibility, and only such anxiety is through faith absolutely educative, because it consumes all finite ends and discovers all their deceptiveness. And no Grand Inquisitor has such dreadful torments in readiness as anxiety has, and no secret agent knows as cunningly as anxiety to attack his suspect in his weakest moment or to make alluring the trap in which he will be caught, and no discerning judge understands how to interrogate and examine the accused as does anxiety, which never lets the accused escape, neither through amusement, nor by noise, nor during work, neither by day nor by night.
He certainly points a harrowing picture, but the idea that anxiety is freedom’s possibility is cause for great optimism. We should feel fortunate to live in confusing times, in the sense that we can be part of reshaping our lives and our culture in such a way that it corresponds more fully to what is true and what is good. It is a wonderful thing that peasantry isn’t considered a life sentence for the person born into it. Of course, this turns vocation into a question rather than a given, and with that comes anxiety. But would it not have caused Beethoven anxiety if he were born in the year 1100 as a simple farmer, and expected to live his whole life as such? What if he never had the chance to play a piano, or perhaps any instrument? The purpose of his anxiety was to lead him to his vocation – to play and compose legendary music. Likewise, the collective anxieties that we feel as a culture are challenging us to live out our vocation as a community more fully, and we will continue feeling the anxiety as long as we aren’t doing so. To my mind, this has something to do with re-imagining and re-visiting the myths by which we live our lives, consciously or unconsciously. In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell beautifully summarizes the highest purpose myth can serve for us:
Mythology is not a lie, mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical. It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth–penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words. It is beyond words. Beyond images, beyond that bounding rim of the Buddhist Wheel of Becoming. Mythology pitches the mind beyond that rim, to what can be known but not told.
Today, many of us have come to regard myth as a synonym of falsehood. Such an impression – leaving aside its oversimplification and dismissiveness – doesn’t undo thousands of years of human cultural history, nor hundreds of thousands of years of evolutionary programming. The word “myth” is derived from the Classical Greek word mythos, which simply means “story.” Human storytelling – and our shared capacity to understand narrative – is a cultural universal, and with good reason. Cognitive scientists describe narrative as a basic organizing structure of memory. By telling stories, to ourselves, to others, or to our communities, we construct a sense of where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going. We can tell stories to help us get at the “penultimate truth” that Campbell describes, but even if we don’t, the stories we tell ourselves and one another will direct our lives. Whether we know it or not, today, most of the stories we are prone to tell are related to our place in the market, and thus we orient our lives to the market in almost the same way that our ancestors oriented their lives to the heavens.
Of course, the anxiety we feel in this time where our myths have become unbelievable, unfulfilling, and even unconscious comes with its perils. In his excellent book Escape From Freedom, philosopher and social psychologist Erich Fromm explores how the anxieties of the postmodern age can be co-opted by demagogues and totalitarians bent on power and oppressive control of the population. As a German Jew writing during World War II, Fromm had his finger firmly on the pulse of the mood that led fascism to rise to power. To briefly summarize, for Fromm, there are two types of human liberty: negative and positive. Negative liberty is simply “freedom from” external constraints from culture, government, religion, etc. Positive liberty is the “freedom to” engage in creative acts with the full strength of one’s whole and integrated personality. Using the language of developmental psychology, Fromm argues that often when people gain “freedom from” that which once gave them a sense of security, they can regress into a state of child-like anxiety. This anxiety can only be truly relieved when we use our “freedom to” – collaboratively – to come up with some sort of replacement to the old older. But this can seem like a tall order, even an impossible task for a population of socially isolated individuals. For this reason, in Fromm’s words:
Modern man still is anxious and tempted to surrender his freedom to dictators of all kinds, or to lose it by transforming himself into a small cog in the machine, well fed, and well clothed, yet not a free man but an automaton.
Surely I won’t need to go into detail about how timely Fromm’s insights are in our current world. Many Americans, and indeed many around the world, unsure of their place in the market and thus full of anxiety about their place in the world, are hungry for a mythology to latch onto. Rather than taking responsibility – as individuals and communities – for revisiting the wisdom of the past and re-imagining it for the future, many are finding it easier to let someone “strong” do it for them. It remains to be seen how this story plays out, and whether we choose to write it or have it written for us, but it’s a story that is certainly underway.
And so, here we are. Life has presented us with a unique time and unique opportunity to relate to it. What’s called for seems to be a slowing down, and a taking of time to reflect. I opened this exploration of the present state of affairs with Alan Watts’ explanation of myth in the Wisdom of Insecurity. It seems only fitting to close with another quote from that book for your reflection:
If to enjoy even an enjoyable present we must have the assurance of a happy future, we are “crying for the moon.” We have no such assurance. The best predictions are still matters of probability rather than certainty, and to the best of our knowledge every one of us is going to suffer and die. If, then, we cannot live happily without an assured future, we are certainly not adapted to living in a finite world where, despite the best plans, accidents will happen, and where death comes at the end.