Are We Free?
The word free is tossed about rather freely in my college classes. Students say how wonderful it is to be free, to live in a free land, to be able to make whatever choices they wish to make, to speak out--to say whatever they want, to do--within the law, of course--whatever they want. I usually wait a few minutes before I pop their bubble of freedom.
I tell them flatly: "There is no such thing as free in this world."
I then have to settle down the indignant, innocent rabble so they'll hear me out.
We all live in various prisons, and must answer to some kind of guard or guards. We simply choose our prison or prisons.
In America, in some schools, students are not free to choose certain books because the community has censored them. As a poet, I lost a book contract because I spoke out about my political feelings in 2003. And, though legal protest is supposedly allowed, sometimes, in reality, it is not--or, it is hindered in ways so that it will not or cannot occur.
If we are stopped by a policeman in America, and we have done nothing wrong, we have absolutely no freedom to protest. We all know what will happen if we do. We will end up in the hoosegow. And when we are released, no one will say, "I'm sorry" or "I was wrong."
We could move to another country, but what would we find there? Every country--maybe with the exception of a few tiny, exotic places--has restrictions imposed on its citizenry. Freedom is a relative word.
If we decide we will simply drop out of society and create our own system in order to be free, we drop into another prison. Outside this society, the bars we rattle consist of how to find adequate food, clean water; how to take a warm shower if we don't want to send dirty dogs away, yapping at our odor; how to find places to sleep out of the cold and the rain. This system does not sound exactly like freedom, either, does it? Tied to staying alive, to survival.
Oh, yes. What if we could find a good cave somewhere away from people and manage to learn to grow our own food. That's a possibility. But are we not chained still? Growing food takes time, a whole season, and constant work. We're chained to a hoe and plow, and to hope for rain. How do we live before we harvest the crops? One of our unexpected guards might be an angry cave bear that shows up one day who wants to assert prior lease on our particular cave. Some of us would find caves without cave bears, of course, but how many would be able to live in a world of solitude. Because I am a poet and seek solitude all the time, I might survive longer than most; but even I would eventually need to return for some contact with other human beings, or go insane--insanity, a prison no one even wants to visit. I would have to endure the prisons of civilization with its irritating guards of stop lights, rude drivers, honking horns, unbridled greed, corporate rule, and consumerism that batter the blind man and the poor who hold their empty cups through the bars. Would we escape to the cave again? Who would care for those in need?
All these guards make me physically ill, and I bang my tin cup on the bars; but no one can hear me over the noise of jack hammers. Jack hammers making way for still more metal skyscrapers to block out the sun, the stars, and the sky.
We move to the suburbs. That prison is quiet, except for the predictable clang of barbecue grills on Saturday night, the roar of lawn mowers on Sunday afternoon, and the canned laughter from television sets every evening, all around the cul-de-sac. The worst noise: the sameness of everything around us that makes us feel like we are one more block house among thousands of block houses. The neighborhood association would not allow me to put my postcards from around the world in my front window, I imagine; and, most likely, it would ask me to remove my concrete donkey from the front yard. He looks lovely now, where he stands by the rhododendron bush.
Places exist where we move as close to freedom as possible. However, we can never know it completely in this world. Our own lack of knowledge, our genetic structure, our psychological blocks and eccentric tics keep us from knowing what it is to be truly free--even within ourselves. Some of us try therapy or follow spiritual paths that do broaden our life views, our tolerance for diversity, our ability to forgive the flaws of mankind--including our own--and, at best, our ability to give love. However, no one is leaving this world "perfected" or perfectly free.
The only exception may be in the human imagination. There, we may do, think, feel . . . whatever we want--no limits. We may banish tall buildings in a single bound, rebuild forests, clean rivers and oceans and dive into them, all the way to the clear sandy bottom. We can cure cholera in an instant, and end all wars.
The only caution, which is a guard even in the imagination: Before we go too far out, we must make sure our feet are firmly planted in the consensual reality of this world. As we fly without restraint into new galaxies scientists have yet to discover or feed all the hungry children of the world or watch herds of elephants bathing in clean water in Africa, we might hold to the leg of a familiar kitchen table or lean our backs against the red oak tree or sit close beside someone who loves us.
When we come back to the good parts of our lives or the claustrophobic, we write. We write our way--almost-- through the bars. We write everything we can to push the boundaries of our prisons, whether in our minds or in our daily lives. One writing a day. The world will not notice for a very, very long time--if ever. But, if all lovers of freedom write to expose the most cruel, unjust, hidden, and chafing bars of the world--and those within themselves, to themselves--someone, light years from now, might be able to say, "I am free." Or if not--and probably not--we have been free to try something true, something real, one act, one day at a time, amidst the propaganda of "freedoms," written in documents, guarded by glass, all over the world.
Maybe this is as free as it gets.
Red Room, bonniebluebelle
Causes Bonnie Roberts Supports
The Southern Poverty Law Center, The National Resource Defense Council, The ACLU, Doctors without Borders, Save Darfur