From the cradle to the nursing home, we shout, “I want to be free,” but it’s one of the greatest lies people live. I can’t begin to count how many teenagers I’ve heard wish for nothing more than to leave the “jail” they call their parents’ home. They want to do whatever they want, without controls or limits. Yet, the freedom they and the rest of us claim to want is a state of being that most of us don’t know what to do with when or if it’s available.
Let me share a story told to me by a young lady who just had returned from Europe after two semesters as an exchange student. During her stay, she went to visit five or six different countries. She discovered an appreciation for history, culture and antiquities. In her own words, “America doesn’t have very much history. What we do have we really don’t value. But, that’s not the way it is in Europe. They keep the old parts of their cities. They refurbish and maintain them. It gives them an appreciation for their history and where they live.”
Her words rang so true to me. We, in the United States, tried for years to legislate sufficient funds directed to build a memorial to the Vietnam veterans. But, then, ask someone, “Where is it? What does it look like?” And, no one really knows. They’re apt to say, “It’s probably somewhere in Washington.”
Think about it. How many of you have gone to Gettysburg, or traced the path of the Civil War, or even know why it really took place? Well, this young lady came back from Europe, aware of these things. She told me that school was too easy, and she didn’t learn a great deal. She went on to relate what occurred when she and her fellow exchange students went for their final in a course taught by a very competent, dedicated professor. The professor stood up and said, “Your final is to write something.”
She looked at her fellow students, who all had the same bewildered, wide-eyed expression. Almost in unison, they asked, “About what?”
“Whatever you want. It’s up to you.”
They sat there in stark disbelief. Then, they began to question further. “How long? How many pages does it have to be?”
He said, “Enough pages to say what you have to say.”
“How many is that?”
Eventually, the professor said, “There is something I want to say. You are all from the United States of America. Tell me, what is the one thing your country has, above every other country in the world? That you export, brag about and want to share with everyone else? In fact, it’s what your country was founded on.”
All of them agreed that the commodity was freedom. “You, in the United States, are supposedly free. That’s what you say. But, look at yourselves. You talk about freedom, but you can’t walk the talk. How do I know? Because I gave it to you. I gave you the freedom to write something. As many pages as it takes to say what you’ve got to say. And, each of you begged and pleaded for directions, boundaries and limits.
“None of you exercised or took advantage of the freedom I gave you. Instead, you wanted to know what was acceptable, politically correct or going to be rewarded. Not one of you said, ‘Fantastic. I’m free to express myself.’
“Why? Because most of you don’t know, or are too frightened to discover who you are or take responsibility for your own decisions. As a result, you plead for directions, even though you claim you don’t like them. Then, you complain that you’re trapped and a victim. In the end, you wound up giving away the freedom I gave you, rather than accepting and exercising it.”
I’ve elaborated on the professor’s speech, because my patient actually only said a few words regarding his statement. But, in my mind, we all have to ask ourselves, how free do we let ourselves be?
Let me give you an example of where I’m coming from. My patient, Lisa, spent most of her life protecting herself, not unlike many of us. She allowed the hurt, lack of warmth or emotional support she experienced as a child to govern the way she behaved as an adult. She married a man who was emotionally insecure and totally nonintrospective; then, she complained about him and used it to justify her lack of physical responsiveness, emotional distance and disdain for him.
Over the years, even normal touching, hugging and kissing decreased to the point that their relationship included little or no physical or emotional interaction. Sex occurred sufficiently to create three children, but, after that was accomplished, it disappeared entirely.
Her husband was angry about the situation, but did little to rectify or change it. He complained about her lack of sexual and emotional involvement, but he stayed in the relationship, played the martyr and blamed her.
They are the quintessential example of individuals who go through the motions of maintaining a marriage, but never dealing with the emotions necessary to make it healthy and meaningful. She saw herself the victim when she was a child and played that role throughout her life.
He saw himself as having spent the first 56 years of his life pleasing everyone. It started with mother and continued with his wife. Although he frequently threatened divorce, he was unable to say what he really felt, stand up for what he believed, make his needs known, or leave.
If you were to look at their lives, you would see wasted years, wasted opportunities and wasted feelings – all because they felt they weren’t free to be who they wanted to be. At some level of awareness, I believe they knew that, but they didn’t have the courage to free themselves from their childhood restrictions and alter their behavior. Consequently, they stayed and blamed each other for their unhappiness.
Ask yourself, “How different are they from the students who were too frightened to risk availing themselves of the freedom they were given?” For me, the answer is obvious, and it leads to one conclusion: Each of us needs to be free to be who we are in order to share us with those we love. But, to get to that point, we first have to have the courage to exercise the freedom that is available to all of us.