Freedom enough for me

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

So many of our dreams — and the American Dream in general — are tied to freedom, of which there are basically two kinds: freedom from and freedom to. 

Both are included in Franklin Delano Roosevelt's famous "Four Freedoms," later iconized by Norman Rockwell's illustrations. On Jan. 6, 1941, FDR framed these freedoms in his State of the Union Address: Freedom of Speech, Freedom to Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear. Most people fully support these freedoms … for themselves. They're not always so keen on guaranteeing them for every American. Roosevelt, however, took a giant step further: We need to extend them to all people, everywhere.

But freedom is relative. We put limits on hate speech and on worship when it becomes merely an excuse to practice bigotry. And the two "freedom froms" are more difficult to achieve. 

Freedom from Want doesn't mean "whatever I want." It doesn't even mean "not having enough" — if that means not having enough to be filthy rich at others' expense. "Want" is an old term we don't use much anymore. It means not having enough to meet basic needs — in other words, freedom from economic insecurity. Elimination of poverty and hunger is achievable, even though the forces arrayed in opposition to such an obvious humanitarian goal are daunting. They support it only if it doesn't restrict their freedom to have whatever they want.

By "want," Roosevelt meant lack of material goods, but there is so much more emotional "want" throughout the country these days. Many suffer from a fear that seizes and freezes the soul. That was clear in the last election.

At its extreme, fear is debilitating. That's why FDR famously said we have nothing to fear but fear itself. Because it is so often "non-rational," it's impossible to make everyone feel safe. Roosevelt primarily meant freedom from the fear of invasion by foreign powers. But we've seen that even the most powerful military defense in the world does not make Americans feel secure. Terrorism and immigration represent the new fear of invasion. Many Americans live in a world filled with imagined threats and they have become easy prey for unscrupulous power-seekers like Donald Trump who know how to manipulate them. 

As Benjamin Franklin said, "Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety." The rest of us, meanwhile, seek freedom from dangerous demagogues who damage our country and violate our cherished national ideals.

I've been thinking about freedom a lot lately because, as I mentioned last week, I will soon have more "free time" on my hands. 

We spend much of our early-to-middle adulthood striving to achieve "freedom from." We try to create safe havens (home, work, community) for ourselves and our loved ones (family and friends). We do our best to work within the limitations that conditions impose and the surprises life throws our way.

We hope it all pays off someday when we retire and have more "freedom to." We make choices (some good, some bad) through the years that affect our health and finances. We also have responsibilities, more or less freely chosen, that follow us into our later years. 

We are never completely free and, truth be told, probably don't really want to be. Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose, Janis Joplin sang, back when most of us didn't have so much to lose. Now we do have something to lose, which can intensify fear.

Or it can lead to liberation. The one freedom we genuinely have is the freedom to accept — and even to choose — the life we have created, with all its limitations and responsibilities and vulnerabilities, and to live it as fully as we can for as long as we can. 

That, it seems to me, is the best way to approach retirement, moving beyond "freedom from" to "freedom to." Freedom to, as the old sports cliché reminds us, "play within our limits." 

Erik Erikson, the psychoanalyst who divided the life cycle into stages, refers to this one as "Integrity vs. Despair." The challenge is to accept and integrate the choices we've made in life, or end up ruing our fate in bitter despair. We don't have the freedom to live our lives over again. Our freedom is to choose the life we've led, accepting our limits and, where possible, stretching ourselves beyond them. 

Our hope is to be freed (relatively) from want and fear, freed to speak from the soul, to seek meaning and let the mind and heart roam together where they will, to worship the beauty of the world and ask aloud who might be responsible for it.

That is freedom enough for me.


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