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!