When I was a high school teacher, I had a 15-year-old Kurdish student in my 9th-grade English class. He was a terrible student, constantly disrespectful and disruptive, completely uninterested in learning, and a huge challenge to my newly-minted teacher self. I spent far too much time trying to stop him from derailing my entire class, which as any teacher will know means that he was very successful at derailing my class. He seemed to delight in doing anything that would actively prevent education from happening. It wasn’t passive boredom with him; it was his hobby.
One day he told me that his family had come to America because they had needed to flee Saddam Hussein’s army. The way he told the story, his father had taken the entire family across the mountains in the middle of the night with the Iraqi Republican Guard somewhere not too far behind them, had managed to sneak into Turkey, and from there had found their way to America.
After he told me this, I asked him why he was so disinterested in education. I don’t remember exactly what I said to him, but it was something like this: “Your father risked his life, and yours, to bring you here, to give you an opportunity for a better life, and this is how to repay him for it? By refusing to learn? Why?”
I might not remember exactly what I said to him, but I will always remember exactly what he said to me. “You have too much freedom.” And he meant it. He was staring at a world that gave him more options than he knew what to do with, and it had won.
I’ve thought about him often over the years, and this seems like as good a time as any to talk about it. We are in the midst of celebrating our independence, our freedom to do whatever we want – except that’s not actually true, is it? I mean, we can’t do anything we want, or there’d be no laws at all. As far as civilization and government are concerned, pure and perfect freedom is synonymous with anarchy, and most of us don’t want that.
That’s the paradox of freedom – that we want as much of it as possible, and yet we also want it to have limits. Parenting is the same way. I want my children to grow up to be whatever they want – except drug dealers or criminals or reality television stars, so I’ll encourage them down certain paths and discourage (or outright prevent) them from pursuing others. And very few of us live lives that don’t involve obligations to others or occasionally require us to do things we would rather not do. Do I always want to spend every single holiday driving to visit some portion of my extended family? Not always. Sometimes it would be more fun to go to Tahiti, or stay home and save myself the windshield time. But when it comes to the holidays – or wedding, or funerals, or pick any other family event – my decisions are not entirely my own.
In fact, when it comes to our professions, I’d argue that most of us don’t even know what true freedom looks like. If we could do anything we wanted, would most of us be doing what we’re doing? Considering that two-thirds of employed people say they’re disengaged with their jobs, odds are the answer is no. But all of us need money, some of us don’t want to move, plenty of us like who we work with (if not what we do), and so we choose to stay somewhere that does not perfectly align with what our unfettered heart would choose.
So what does freedom look like in practice? I think it requires us to understand that we have chosen to attach ourselves to certain tethers – our society, our children, our lifestyle – and that those tethers necessarily restrict our ability to pursue what we might do otherwise. The trick, then, is to make sure that the obligations we have imposed upon ourselves are ones that are worth the cost.
People are fond of talking about the quarter- or mid-life crisis, as though some people just spontaneously go crazy and decide to change everything about the way they live. But I think what’s really happening is that people of all ages sometimes decide that the balance between freedom and obligation is off. In order to get more freedom, they have to remove some burdens, and that can take a hundred forms – quitting an unsatisfying job, leaving an unsatisfying marriage, moving to a new place with different opportunities, even something as simple and getting a new haircut and joining a gym. The fact that this happens to people of all ages suggests that it’s not a crisis of any kind, but rather the culmination of a lot of thought about whether they have the amount of freedom they want.
So this month, as you think about what freedom is and provides, remember that it’s never alone. Our freedom is always constrained, most of those constraints are self-imposed, and none of them necessarily have to be permanent. What’s important is remembering that we should all have the freedom to change what those constraints are.
Happy birthday, America!
Jeff, your point is amazingly deep and innovative! I feel for the angst of that student. I hope he’s found peace and joy here. And finding that really is an “inside job.” I’d add that people may feel there’s too much freedom when they lack a sense of clear purpose for their lives. It can make them flounder, fight or flee (I didn’t plan all those “f” words, either!). I hope people really think about what their lives are about and what they want to get out of life. That may help direct people’s choices in life, thus clearing away some burdens or baggage that no longer serves them. Great blog article, Jeff!
That’s an excellent point, Andrea. Having a purpose is a great way to focus, and that’s a thing we all need now more than ever. If he felt we had too much freedom before the Internet really took off, I can only imagine how overwhelming it would be for him now.
I think it’s important for all of us to periodically assess if the path we’re on is actually the one we want to be on. It’s a hard thing to do, but I think it’s much better than getting to 63 years old and deciding that you’ve hated the last 15 years of your life.
Thanks for the comment!
I always like your stories and resulting insight.
Curious what happened to the Kurdish kid. How did you respond in the moment and how did he respond moving forward? Were you successful at ‘coaching him up’?
I was entirely unsuccessful at ‘coaching him up.’ He failed my class, and the following year I left that school and began the weird, wandering path that led me to where I am today. I wish I could have done a better job of reaching my students, him and so many others – but the trick with education is that you never really know if you reach somebody, or when. Most people don’t realize how impactful a teacher is until at least after the class is over, and sometimes it’s not until several years later.
As for how I responded in the moment, I’m pretty sure I said nothing, then moved immediately on to whatever lesson I was attempting to teach the other 20 kids in my class. That’s one of the challenges with teaching – when you find a ‘teaching moment,’ you can’t always take advantage of it! Much easier in the business world where you have more 1-on-1 or 2-on-1 conversations. You know the phrase, “Those who can’t do, teach”? Well anyone who ever says that should trying teaching, just to see if they can do it. It’s unbelievably hard.
Probably not the answer you were looking for, but in fairness, I was 22 years old. I’d like to think I’d do better now. 🙂
Great article as always. Interesting perspective of that disruptive kid, and cool spin you’ve put on it here. I’ve had this conversation with my parents and even my wife this very week, about the midlife crisis and all it really means…love how you explained the freedoms. Continued success my friend!
Thanks, Jason! Hope you and the family are doing well. Someday I’ll need to get to Utah and finally meet you in person! (And see Utah!) Hope your “mid-life crisis” is going the way you want it to. 🙂
WOW! Great message. Everything really does have a different view when we change our perspective. I call it “practice”. If I’m practicing everyday, be it yoga, compassion and kindness, or whatever comes to me that day, I remain thoughtful in every moment. Thank you for always being insightful and bringing the awareness of how when we look at things differently, they change.
Can I also add how tickled I am to be reading this message, because I love the “Haven’s” so much!, and I also see my other favorite…Hi Jason Hewlett! I feel like I just got the bonus on a slot machine! 🙂
Blessings to you all, and thanks, so much!, for inspiring us!