This Thing Called “Freedom”


By Troy Headrick

As some of you might know, I am the director of a writing center at Palo Alto College in San Antonio, Texas.  Just yesterday, a bright, young woman came into our facility and one of our best tutors helped her with a piece of writing she’d been working on.

The tutoring session ended and this tutee—I won’t reveal her name or other personal information as a way of safeguarding her privacy—started opening up about her life.  She began telling our tutor that she lived in a small town outside of San Antonio and was required to pay higher tuition than normal because she found herself “out of district.”  She also told us she resided with a mother who was financially strapped and therefore unable to help her with her school costs.  Basically, if she couldn’t find a way to make her education more affordable, she would likely have to drop out.

After hearing all this, I inserted myself into the conversation and we began to brainstorm with her about actions she might take to solve her difficult problem.  Basically, we were prodding her to think critically and creativity.  She liked a lot of what we had to say and left our center feeling like she was going to begin thinking more outside the box about her situation.

As soon as she took off, I realized that what we’d really been talking about is freedom, a term that many Americans like to throw around a lot.  For example, many will claim that America is the freest country in the history of world.  Making such broad declarations has always bothered me.  Freedom, it seems, needs to be looked at in a more nuanced way lest we resort to mouthing platitudes about it.

In the young woman’s case, she was seeking freedom to further her education, but to be free in this way, she’d need to be able to free herself from a number of constraints, mostly financial in nature.

Thus, when we think about being free (or the nature of freedom), we need to realize that there are different types:  freedom to and freedom from, and that there are huge differences between these two conceptualizations.

For example, when we say that we want to be free to find ourselves, we are really talking about something aspirational.  However, freedom from is all about overcoming limitations, those impediments that would keep us from easily pursuing our dreams.  We can’t easily be free to find ourselves if we can’t be free from constraints that would prevent us from doing self-reflection and self-discovery.  To use another illustration, if you dream of becoming a sculptor, you might have trouble achieving the sort of freedom that would allow you to develop your artistic skills if your family thinks pursuing art is a waste of time.  You’d need to free yourself from the kinds of pressures your loved ones might place on you—they could argue that you need to focus on doing something “more practical”—before you could be free enough to fully invest your energy in becoming a sculptor.

I think it has great value to take this freedom-to-versus-freedom-from framework and apply it to our lives.  What would you like to be free to do and what do you need to free yourself from to achieve your goals?

For instance, if you’d like to be free to travel more, what do you need to free yourself from to travel?  Once you can answer these questions, it’s easier to begin putting together a plan that would help you live the life you’ve always dreamed of.

What do you think about my thoughts on freedom?  How do they relate to your situation (if at all)?  Do you have a personal testimonial you’d like to share related to the arguments I’m making in this piece?

I can’t wait to read your responses!

Troy Headrick’s personal blog can be found here.

30 thoughts on “This Thing Called “Freedom”

  1. It makes me think of the FI/RE movement (financially independent/retiring early). They are always saying you really can’t be free until your financially ahead of the game.

    But there are a lot of ways that freedom can be constricted. The personal ones like money may be overcome. But what about the societal restrictions? How do you become free from those?

    1. Good question. Yesterday, when we were talking to the tutee I mentioned in my piece, she was also reluctant to move away from her mother and hometown. She was having trouble breaking away from her beliefs that she couldn’t move to San Antonio because the big city was too scary and dangerous. In her case, she needed to free herself from misconceptions and old ideas that had been drilled into her head. Freeing yourself from some constraints involves risk taking and acts of courage. Don’t you think? Thanks for your comment.

    1. Thanks for the kind words. Yes! I totally believe in making action plans. They start with a good diagnosis of the problem and then a plan of action to change the situation. Taking these steps will provide you with the freedom to live the way you wish.

  2. Brilliant. There are countless things in this world I wanted to be free to explore if only I had the courage to free myself from some sort of constraint. I felt the part about freeing yourself from other people’s opinions in my soul!

  3. Good one! I think freedom can certainly be a mindset that paved the way for the individual to then become more open to avenues of freeing themselves from whatever constrains them, real or perceived. Personally, I strive for freedom to be me, just as I am. I find that my strongest restrictions also come from me. Whether learned or acquired or some combination.

    1. I like how you mentioned that constraints can be either “real or perceived.” That’s an important point I didn’t cover in my piece. Some constraints are those we conjure up because we think we are being controlled by some force or by giving a “constraint” more power over us than it really has. I also like how you mentioned that you are sometimes your greatest enemy when it comes to being overly cautious or feeling controlled. Thank you so much for leaving such an insightful comment! You actually thought of things I missed or glossed over in my blog.

  4. Another great post, Troy! Freedom: what does that truly mean? What does that look like in our individual lives? What can I personally free myself from? I will be pondering these questions! 🕊

    1. You’ve asked such elemental questions here. What is freedom and how does it manifest itself in our lives? I will be pondering those questions too. Even though I often pride myself in being a fierce contrarian and nonconformist, the truth is I often show too little courage in living my life. I worry too much about what others think of me and so on. I suppose, deep down, I am insecure. But that’s probably a widespread problem. All of us, I suppose, are insecure in one way or another.

  5. This is very true there is a difference. I’m finishing that we say a lot of words or saying without really gaining full understanding of the words or sayings we use. Which I guess that is one way how communication can be misunderstood.
    In terms of the question I feel I am becoming free from the things that were causing hinderances but I want to be free to give more time and effort to my business and life goals.

    1. So you’ve taken the first (and, perhaps, most important) step. You’ve come to a firm conclusion about what you want to be free to pursue. And it sounds like you’re finding ways to free yourself from constraints that keep you from fully following your dreams. You look to be someone who is very self-reflective and analytical. Having those skills will carry you far in life, my friend. Yes, they will. Thank you for sharing your story.

    1. Thank you for the kind words! I always appreciate reading your insightful comments! Yes, I agree. There is a great deal of “feeling” in feeling free. Sometimes we imagine ourselves to be constrained when the constraint is somewhat imaginary. Also, we sometimes think we’re freer than we really are…

  6. I like how we’re both talking about freedom this week. You got your post up first. : ) I think that someone who doesn’t have liberty, cannot be free to choose or do as they wish. We must be free from oppression to be free to live. Thanks for the conversation, Rebecca

    1. Thank you for posting such an interesting comment. I think many of us are probably obsessing over the meaning of freedom these days where there appears to be a kind of creeping “oppression” (as you put it). One might refer to this form of oppression in many other ways, including group-think.

    1. Yes! Plus, freedom from is hard in that it requires us to break free from familial and societal expectations and that’s always a hard thing to do. You recently mentioned Maslow and I’ve written about him too. He says exactly the same thing I was saying in this blog. We can never self-actualize until we have our lower needs met. Thanks, Betul, and I hope grad school is going well. My grad schools days were some of the best I ever had.

      1. I’ve always been curious about the University of Southern California. I had an uncle who had his PhD from there. What’s the school like?

      2. I like the school overall. The vibe is nice. I like my friends in my department too. Very friendly. Facilities are also better now that we have our own village. I don’t have complaints:)

  7. Fabulous post – as always!
    It seems to me that many Americans feel Freedom is given to them, and once it’s theirs, they have the right to do whatever they want with it. “I Have Freedom of Speech!” “Yes. Yes, you do. You do NOT have Freedom of Consequences from that speech.” *cue confusion and reiteration of an Amendment that hasn’t been comprehended*

    I don’t mean to belittle or besmirch my fellow country members when I say this – but i see a damned sight more effort being put forward by those “without” towards Freedom To, than from those “with” towards Freedom From.
    Let’s look at the scandal(?) of Hollywood parents buying SAT scores so their dimpled darlings can go to the school of their choosing. It is absolutely appalling, and boy, are these kids in for a shock when being the son of whomever doesn’t get them a “A” in every class they take. The assumption there being, once they are in, it’s all a road paved with more for them.

    I like to think of Freedom as an equalizer. I don’t have to spend my money here, or watch this show, or write with this type of pen. I have the Freedom of Choice. I also have consequences from those choices. I don’t get to take it out on someone else if I’m unhappy with my choice. People seem to think that consequences or repercussions aren’t part of Freedom. They are.

    1. Americans like to throw around the term “freedom” a lot. They like to claim that they are the freest people in the world. There’s another aspect of freedom I didn’t cover in this piece. Freedom involves choice. If a person has to act a certain way because he or she has no other choice, no other alternatives, then that person isn’t truly free. For example, in Europe, people are free to either own automobiles of use public transportation. Do Americans have this same choice? As we all know, public transportation is extremely limited in comparison to European countries. Therefore, Americans are forced to own automobiles. Americans look less free in this aspect of their lives. They don’t have choices. They don’t have alternatives. A person is truly free only when he or she see a range of possible actions in front of him or her and can pick and choose which one is most agreeable. Again, thanks for you comment. I always look forward to reading what you have to say, Liz.

    1. Right. I just wanted to drive the point home that freedom doesn’t exist where there is no choice or ability to select among options. When a person is compelled to act a certain way because there is on other choice for him or her to do otherwise that person is not free in the true sense of the word. Thanks.

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