Are We Truly Free?

are we truly free

We say we are free. We love our freedom.

Inching into the mid-semester milestone, the way we abide by our timetables and pursue our assignment deadlines have become almost mechanical. The robotic footsteps that bring us to and from university, then the routine of attending to work has evolved into thoughtless commitments. We recognise the lacklustrer poise and the endless busyness. The downcast eyes and the heavy sighs. ‘Peace’ becomes a far-fetched ideal, a luxury we “cannot afford”. We cannot recall a time we described our schedules as “full, challenging and fulfilling” instead of “busy, tiresome and hectic”. This piece is about the freedom we claim to prize and yet, the slavery we time and again succumb to. Allow me to propose that the freedom we are fighting so hard to protect is not making us feel any freer, not in any sense of the word. (We remain busy and confused as ever, in our schedules and in our hearts.)

Enslaved by what they want me to do | Freedom by what I was made to do

We say we are free. We love our freedom.

Wherever I look, this world teaches me to invest myself in the tangible – the grades, the career, the material possessions that will somehow bring me to a place of fulfilment; a place of fullness. There is a tingling in my soul that reminds me though, that there is little truth in these investments. There is a knowing that endless nights up completing assignments, countless days of overtime work in the office and fleeting indulgences in experiences of ‘pleasure’ (or so the world calls them) will only leave me more tired, more isolated and more unsatisfied. The grumbling of the soul will only grow. The recipe to a meal should take some semblance to the eventual meal I am hoping to cook up; in the same way, if this should be the recipe to the concoction of ‘a life of freedom’, the steps I take should bring me closer. The taste of freedom should brew as I draw closer.

The grumbling speaks but we still choose the path that has been tried and tested and known to fail, thinking maybe for me it will be different, maybe for me it will work, maybe fullness will come. We know no other path and persist in treading incessant busyness. Yet, the more we invest in doing the things society expect of us just because that is expected of us, are we not fastening the seatbelt in the vehicle that is on its way to our cells of misery? Are we not leaving our outstretched arms for the handcuffs of society’s expectations?

Desperate, we choose the path of extraordinary. We take the path less trodden and challenge societal norms. We sign ourselves up for extra-curricular activities, external classes, sports teams and spend our weekends volunteering. We colour our lives with additional ingredients beyond the standard recipe; we add salt and pepper, spices and sugar. On days we are silent enough, honest enough, we know that the added flavour isn’t going to change the dish we are cooking up. So long as what follows our ‘because…’ when answering ‘Why do you do what you do?’ has been a result of what society expects, are we truly free?

C.S. Lewis enlightens us as we cook up (nothing but) lies to ourselves. He writes that sometimes the shortest way round is the longest way home. Where one has been driving on the highway in the wrong direction, the fastest way to the destination is a complete U-turn to cover all the miles that has already been covered. When solving a mathematical problem applying the wrong principle, the fastest way to the answer is to redo the entire mathematical problem. Where our recipe to a dish is misguided, adding flavourful spices will not be as effective as throwing away the half-done ingredients and starting over with the correct recipe.

Enslaved by who they want me to be | Freedom by who I am meant to be

We say we are free. We love our freedom.

Recently, I had the privilege of listening to the story of an inspiring individual – her story is one of breaking free from the misleading messages of media about body image and standing up for who she had wanted to be. There is power in being aware of what has informed the people we hope to become – Is it our parents whose everyday worries shape our ambitions? Is it the peers we interact with everyday whom we compare ourselves to? Is it our past experiences that have scarred us to a place we perceive is beyond repair? Is it the fears for today or our worries about tomorrow? The battles lost before and those not yet fought?

When we see that everything we tell ourselves about who we are is a choice that we make daily, we realise that we are eventually in control of whether or not anything besides what is true becomes who we are. A mantra I had in 2016 was “Be who you want to be, not who they want me to be.” Thank you Brene Brown. ‘They’ did not refer to specific people I wanted to blame for the insecure chatters in my head. ‘They’ referred to the general external myriad of lies that I had become enslaved to over time. I am still breaking free one chain at a time.

Even with the ongoing rallies and debates about same-sex marriage in Sydney, I wonder if we are truly fighting for freedom. Do the rainbow flags, glitter and heels, make up and flowers, truly represent the identities of those in the LGBTIQ community? Are we enslaving them further by parading in a way that reduces their people into merely their sexualities? Today as a minority in my university classroom, I wonder how much I might appreciate a ‘parade for Singaporeans’ to celebrate who I am. I would appreciate the kind intentions, but also desire for my self to be recognised as more than just ‘Singaporean’ – because being Singaporean is part of who I am, but only just a part. Months ago, on the day of Mardi Gras, a play called ‘The Homosexuals’ was staged in Griffin Theatre. Put together by talented individuals, the sense of loneliness and that of being misunderstood conveyed by the powerful literature reaffirmed the conviction that we have to keep asking ourselves, “Who am I? Who am I, regardless of what people think or what society says? Who am I, that I don’t have anything to prove because I am already approved? Who am I, that I believe I am worthy of love and belonging without fighting for it?”

Enslaved by lies | Freedom by truth

The Bible says the truth will set you free. (Whatever you believe about the Bible, this is a phrase that has been quoted over and over; one that we can certainly learn from.) The worst fate I can imagine is to allow myself to be enslaved by what is not true and not even know it.

For a long time, I believed that freedom was the absence of rules. This has been challenged over and over as a history student, for the wars and tragic atrocities of our past show us evidently that laws and regulations are necessary and paramount, even, to the freedom of individuals in society. The freedom to stay out as late as I’d like comes from the laws that protect me against crime, the freedom to spend money the way I’d like comes from the regulations that surround our markets and the freedom to love deeply those around me comes from our unspoken agreements about trust. The overwhelming truth that these that ‘restrictions’ are not antithetical to freedom leads me to pursue freedom in a radically different way.

Perhaps then, it is time to fight for freedom not by undermining anything that appears to restrict but dig deep to find out what chains remain cuffed at our limbs controlling who we are and what we do. Timothy Keller, the author of The Reason for God, writes it like this,

“In many areas of life, freedom is not so much the absence of restrictions as finding the right ones, the liberating restrictions. Those that fit with the reality of our nature and the world, producing greater power and scope for our abilities and a deeper joy and fulfilment. Experimentation, risk and making mistakes bring growth only if, over time, they show us our limits as well as our abilities. If we only grow intellectually, vocationally and physically through judicious constraints – why would it not also be true for spiritual and moral growth? Instead of insisting on freedom to create spiritual reality, shouldn’t we be seeking to discover it and disciplining ourselves to live according to it?”

We say we are free. We love our freedom. Let’s say it and mean it.