Reconciling the realms of freedom and necessity

Opinion: Columns

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

If your goal is to get pleasantly lost on a summer afternoon, walk deep into River Forest. Unlike Oak Park, where the world clamors and is always close at hand, the world feels far removed in this village set in a forest, which features a river as its western boundary, the Des Plaines meandering slowly, swollen with rain from our torrential, climate-changed spring. 

Here sunlight sifts through the leafy canopy, creating lovely patterns of light and shade on lawns diverse with clover, violets, and dandelions, the air saturated with linden blossoms. Here time comes close to standing still, and you can hear echoes of other eras when the trees were younger and houses were occupied by other lifetimes. 

This is the realm of freedom, that elusive alternative to the realm of necessity. 

The two realms, necessity and freedom, come from Karl Marx, part of his critique of Capitalism, which conditions us to believe that labor is the entire purpose of life when "the real measure of value," according to one recent book review, "is not how much work we have done or have to do (quantity of labor time) but how much disposable time we have to pursue and explore what matters to us (quality of free time)."

What is freedom? Is it "just another word for nothing left to lose" as the old song goes? If you lose everything you're attached to, Buddhism would answer, that can feel catastrophic, but it can be liberating. 

Freedom is also another word for autonomy, as Atul Gawande points out in his book Being Mortal about the end of life and how older Americans can still live meaningfully right up till the end.

"There are different concepts of autonomy," Gawande writes. "One is autonomy as free action — living completely independently, free of coercion and limitation. This kind of freedom is … a fantasy. … Our lives are inherently dependent on others and subject to forces and circumstances well beyond our control. … The amount of freedom you have in your life is not the measure of the worth of your life."

Gawande finds another kind of autonomy "more compelling." 

"Whatever the limits and travails we face," he says, "we want to retain the autonomy — the freedom — to be the authors of our lives. This is the very marrow of being human. … All we ask is to be allowed to remain the writers of our own story. … The battle of being mortal is the battle to maintain the integrity of one's life."

We all know people (including ourselves perhaps) who function in the realm of freedom as if they're in the realm of necessity — hyper-booked vacations, for instance.

One of the places I feel most free is cycling on the Salt Creek bike trail because the sensation of flow on a bicycle is a favorite freedom. But to get there, I have to drive, which puts me firmly in the realm of necessity. I find myself tangled in traffic, defined as "flow, constantly interrupted." Operating heavy machinery requires concentration and judgment. But judgment often extends to criticizing my fellow drivers, so I arrive at my destination tense and irritated. 

The "necessity" skills of bike riding, however, are simpler and much less distracting. Flow is uninterrupted. In the realm of freedom, letting go and acceptance are the dominant characteristics. The art is learning to transition from one realm to the other with grace and ease. 

The problem is we spend so much more of our lives in the realm of necessity. By necessity, as it were, those skills are more highly developed. When we finally enter the realm of freedom, we may feel at a loss. What do we do now?

Let go — of trying to control time and our lives, enjoying time's passage instead of fighting it, giving the world our full attention, and seeing living itself as the gift it is. Letting go feels more like the absence of a skill — easier said than "done," especially when we're used to holding on. It takes practice to become adept at going "free-range."

We can't hurry time. Neither can we slow it down so it lasts longer. When we're deeply in the "now," time feels timeless. Yet our necessity-conditioned brains know this won't last forever. There is a call we must make later today. Laundry needs to be done. We are the maintenance custodians of our lives. The two realms collide and intrude. That is the nature of living. In necessity, we stare out the window and pine for freedom. In freedom, we are distracted by necessity's endless nagging. Reconciling the realms isn't easy. 

We can use the skills of necessity to arrange temporary escapes into freedom, and we need to so we don't burn out in the world of necessity. But freedom is more than rest and recuperation. It is a state of mind where we can more fully appreciate the richness of the world and our place in it. 

Yet our minds are undisciplined, our thoughts and feelings scattered. As we appreciate a landscape of great beauty, it may remind us of something from childhood. Suddenly we go down the rabbit hole of memory and take a side-trip, wondering about the choices we made to get to this point in life. It takes discipline to recognize that we've left the here and now and gently coax ourselves back without criticizing our foray "elsewhere." Freedom is a paradoxical combination of letting go and focus. It takes practice.

But it's worth mastering because what we learn in freedom can improve the way we function in the realm of necessity, giving us a larger perspective on "work," helping us respond more effectively, and turning it into a "labor of love."

Summer is the season most closely associated with the realm of freedom. Its siren call is insistent. Laundry still needs to be done. Calls need to be made. But outside beckons, so you find a way to carve out a few hours to meander through River Forest, leaving the world behind, marveling at the stillness of a sunny summer afternoon.

Oh crap! My shirts are sitting in the dryer getting wrinkled because I got carried away writing this column. Sorry, gotta run.


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