“Freedom is an illusion. It always comes at a price.”
-Jonathan Stroud, The Amulet of Samarkand
I clearly remember the first time someone got me to question freedom as an ideal. It freaked me out. I’d grown up watching Westerns; Huckleberry Finn still lounged somewhere nearby, smoking when he wanted to smoke, fishing when he wanted to fish. Then someone looked into my head, saw the picture of a homestead where each man (and yeah, it was a man) was sovereign over all he saw, and said, “That’s not free. That’s lonely.”
In the next years, I tried to adjust my freedom-loving worldview so that it could make room for the swell of whatever I’d felt in that wild, stormy moment. “Maybe,” I thought, “Maybe we’re only free with support; when I raise my walls around a little patch of ground, I don’t have friends, family, I don’t have connection, so the freedom to do as I please isn’t freedom at all. It’s just emptiness. Maybe freedom is the openness in which there’s love.” I think there’s something to that, but I also know I was trying to rework my definitions so that I had to change as little as possible. I didn’t want to accept that I might have picked ideals that led to someplace I didn’t want to go. And I might have. That’s something we do.
What if freedom isn’t what I’m after? What if, truth be told, I choose something else–purpose, or compassion, or respect, or growth, or engagement, or the hum of a forest filled with countless insects doing their insect thing? What if, as Stroud says, freedom as an absolute doesn’t even make sense? Huckleberry can smoke, but the smoke will do what smoke does to his lungs. He can fish, but if there are enough Huckleberries who aren’t careful about it, they’ll get rid of all the fish. There’s always a price.
I don’t know what I’m doing, and I don’t know anyone else who has this living thing 100% figured out. With that in mind, freedom’s important because it lets each of us flail around while we try to figure out how to help, and where we’re going. But that says freedom is part of our path forward; it doesn’t say freedom is the land we’re walking to. And I’m not sure it is. I’ve never felt more sure of the world than when I was caring for my little niece, and she took every ounce of concentration I had. Standing there (well, running, actually; and sitting and holding and swinging and spinning around), I wasn’t free to do as I pleased. But I want to go back.
To put the same thought in a different place, it’s important to me that I’m free to teach my classes in the way I want. But I don’t teach classes to protect my freedom to teach however I want. I teach to try and help my students learn.