Sunday, October 24, 2010

on freedom

The theme of Jonathan Franzen's novel Freedom is that people are trapped by everything they need to do in order to have it. Trapped by an insistence on being self-sustaining and self contained. Trapped by never settling down. Trapped by having to stay far from their families. Trapped by independence. It reminds me of someone I used to be very close to -- there were so many things he could not do in order to remain "free." It's a type of freedom that means not only shaking off the past, but refusing to build a future. It requires you to say no to a lot of things.

Today I finished Eat the Document, a novel about a Weather Underground-style radical who went underground at the age of 22 and, who, now approaching 50, is living quietly in the suburbs with her teenage son. Her first years as a fugitive, moving every few months, working in restaurant kitchens, changing names and hair colors, are chronicled. She observes, "People with real freedom never do really 'free' things, like reinvent themselves, leave lives behind, change everything. Only trapped, desperate people did that."

Two apartments ago, I kept a postcard on my refrigerator. It pictured an endless traffic jam and the words, "Enjoy the freedom of a car." I have for years felt that way about driving -- it's a fake form of freedom sold to us so we'll consume more. You have to pay for the car, so you have less money to do whatever else you want. You constantly have to worry about where it's parked, whether you're getting a ticket, whether someone hit it, what that strange rattling noise is, etc etc. It's the ultimate possession that people become enslaved to -- except for a house I suppose. And here we were, acting like a car is freeing because you can go anywhere you want, whenever you want. But of course you can't go wherever you want. You have to work tomorrow. What will enable you to "just pick up and go" is time and money, and if you have those things, you don't need a car. You can get a cab to the airport.

There have been a couple of slaves to freedom in my life in recent years, and they really like to drive.

Does all of this mean Big Brother was right, and freedom really is slavery? I don't think so. It means that being an adult isn't about running away, and it certainly isn't about pretending that you could if you wanted to. You have to face who you are and where you came from. Start there.

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