There is a curious thing about freedom: you might think that it is something that depends on how things are around you, that it is not up to you whether you are free to do something or not. But that's not so.

So you're sitting on a commuter train for hours every day; you have to attend to mundane details of live, such as shopping, cleaning your home or doing pointless paperwork to please the bureaucracy; your day is full of little waiting times, much too short and inconvenient to do anything useful within them. You just don't have the option to do something more fruitful with much of your time; it simply is not possible; you are not free to do so. And it's not just that. Because of the tedium, the paralyzing monotonousness that drains all motivation, it's not just that you cannot do the things you'd rather do, you're even blocked from thinking and reflecting; it's the leaden routine of everyday life that makes your thoughts and feelings become stale and pale — and again, this isn't something you could do anything about.

Well, really? What does it mean to be free in this context? It seems to refer primarily to the ability to decide on how to act, what to make of a given situation. That includes also, in some sense, what to think and how to feel. (We may not always be able to control that in a given event, but at the very least we can work towards a character that would dispose us to slide into the right thinking, the appropriate feeling, as often as possible.) And of course, the ability referred to must also go further: namely, it must cover actually succeeding with what you've decided to do.

Let's get this clearer with an example. So you would love to get into philosophy; into studying the theory of what it means to live a good life; into reflection on what truth is, or beauty, on how to tell the difference between real knowledge and mere opinion, on what the fundamental structure of reality and the world around us turn out to be. But you can't. You are not free to do so. (Because, let's say, you actually do sit on a commuter train every day for hours.) And what we mean by 'freedom' when we use the word in this sense is exactly that the constellation that we find ourselves in, the whole setup of our life, job and family simply must allow an occupation like that. Yet for many of us, it doesn't — so we are not free (in the sense we're reflecting on here).

And the interesting aspect of this sort of thinking is that it makes your freedom fully depend on external circumstances, on how things happen to be, on that, precisely, in your life which you supposedly cannot change. You're basically saying that you don't have a choice here, that you might have tried to get into philosophy had the situation of your life been different, but that this simply isn't an option. The idea of a choice is crucial here, for if there is no choice, that means there is nothing to decide; or at any rate, even if decided, there wouldn't really be a way of acting after that decision, so it would be futile. Likewise you might think that being able to reflect, to think carefully and concentratedly, is dependent on your environment as well. You may well be not free to do so, even if you tried, in many of the circumstances that you're usually in, day by day. And finally, it takes such a lot of hard work to form your character and develop into a better person, doesn't it? Surely that's something that is simply not possible if you have an overwhelming load of daily concerns to take care of? Perhaps it's something you might do a bit for on vacations, or when you are retired. But as things stand, you're not at liberty to focus on that.

Compelling as this line of thought may be, it's self-deceptive. You do have choices, here as everywhere. And one of the first steps to developing a better character is to get clear on what those choices are. When you think that you'd rather reserve some later time for caring about your person, the decision that you in effect take is that your job, your career, or whatever prevents you from doing so, is more relevant — you are assigning it a higher priority. You may object that it isn't just the job itself: remember that commuter train? In order to make a living, you have to do something, and that will take time from you one or the other way. Perhaps; but even so, what keeps you from making good use of these dead times in the middle of everyday business? You can use any free moment wherever you are, and be it only for pondering something useful in your thoughts. If you don't do that, you're not only wasting time (and make no progress with your important projects), you've again silently taken a choice: you might have made an effort wringing something out of even an inconvenient situation — but you put a priority, at that moment, on the more convenient, the easier alternative, the path of less resistance.

You may not actually revert those choices; but it would be some progress to even recognize that they are your choices. It's not the world around you that has decided that you can't make more out of your life. It never is. If that choice is taken, it's always you who takes it — whether you realize it or not; whether you acknowledge it or not; whether you can justify it before yourself or not.

Choices are pervasive: you can start making use of every single moment of those waiting times; you can put a time management system in place in order to streamline the mundane and necessary tasks you have to do; you can rearrange a lot of your life to make room for what you think is important. You do not have to linger around with those who are in your company just because of an accident of the moment; you can choose who you want to be with yourself. You can also reflect at any time on what is important: what are the real goals of your life, and what kinds of character qualities would you have to develop to reach them? These questions are hard, and it takes a long time and much effort to merely get a first and tentative answer, which then must be refined over and over again — not to speak of starting to actually pursue those goals, and develop those character qualities. But difficult though it may be, it's your decision, and yours alone, whether you embark on that path.

All these are choices, and it's you who must decide: your path is not yet set and fixed for you by circumstances. With every day, with every hour you let pass and do not choose yourself, you're leaving your life to the general drift it's got from whatever influences the world exerts to it. And that may in the end not be what is best for you. Take care.
Copyright © 2007-2012 by Leif Frenzel. All rights reserved.