What Sets You Free?

The Fourth of July is really not a holiday I celebrate, probably shocking no one who knows me. I’m not a patriot, nor am I proud of my US citizenship. But the occasion does get me thinking about freedom, and what that word actually means.

When personal values come up, it’s rare that “freedom” makes my list.

One reason might be privilege: I simply don’t have significant experiences of being trapped, restricted, or imprisoned, nor does my freedom feel threatened. I have the luxury of taking for granted that I can move, act, and speak relatively freely. I know that cops and other officials are going to give me the benefit of the doubt because I’m white. I value others’ freedom, and want others to enjoy these kinds of freedoms as well, but I also know that we can’t really “free” another person—often the best thing we can do if we’re part of the oppressing group is to get out the damn way. That “getting out of the way” is encompassed in some of my other values, like integrity and harm reduction.

Another reason is that freedom has a lot of specific associations for me, as someone who grew up in, and grew up critical of, the United States. I can’t help but think of “freedom fries,” and of “liberating” people in far-off places as an imperialist project. For a lot of white US Americans, freedom is a dogwhistle and an excuse. Freedom to be an asshole, to defend private property with violence, to destroy the environment, and so on. Freedom from contributing to social programs that redistribute wealth or benefit the citizenry. Freedom as a badge of superiority that we can use to insult other countries and cultures we label as “not free” while ignoring the folks within our own borders who don’t have accessed to the promised American freed. Yeah, no thanks.

But what’s underneath these two very real reasons for giving freedom a bit of side-eye are the ways in which even very privileged people in this country aren’t actually free. Freedom is an illusion that seems more solid for those with power and privilege, who experience more of it in reality, but it’s still an illusion. Most of us do labor we didn’t really choose in order to meet our basic needs, and we’re not free to rest when we really need it. Most of us spend some amount of energy meeting the expectations of those around us, do things because we “should,” because we were taught. Most of us have at least some internalized narratives that come from our culture, family, religion, or schooling that we repeat or live by without a lot of question.

In the early 2000s, when “freedom” was in full propaganda mode, a common refrain from those of us opposed to imperialist military projects was “freedom for whom?” Freedom doesn’t mean what you think it means, in other words. But it does beg the question, what does freedom mean?

If we strip away these nationalist associations, where freedom is about conquering and colonizing and turning the commons into private property and destroying the planet and avoiding taxes… what does it actually mean to be free? At a personal level, what does being free feel like? “Liberation” is a word I often use, that I see in more justice-centered communities as a marker of radical freedom from harmful institutions, systems, and ideologies. But what exactly does a liberatory future look like?

I invite you to consider these questions with me today:

  1. When do I feel most free? What does being free feel like in my body, in my spirit?
  2. What words, images, sounds, memories, or concepts do I associate with true freedom?
  3. Where do I not feel free in my life? Where do I feel restricted or trapped? Where do I long for greater freedom?
  4. What would that look like? If I could be free in the areas where I’m longing for freedom, what would I do differently? How would I relate differently to the world around me?
  5. What would that kind of freedom require? If the requirements seem impossible to meet, or in conflict with other values, probe a little deeper. Are there other paths to freedom? Can I get creative? Can I ask for help? Are there tiny steps I could take towards freedom this week, this month, or this year?

If you’re feeling particularly restricted, or if you’re excited about finding a path towards freedom and liberation for yourself and others, I’d love to chat with you! I’ve got a free (see what I did there? 😂 ) session available where we can touch base and think together about your next steps. There’s no obligation whatsoever, but I can also let you know about options to work further together and refer you to other awesome practitioners if you’re looking for more support. You can find that info on the Work with Me page!

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