The Freedom to be Me


Freedom: what is it, and how does it link to happiness.


You know how sometimes the crucial key to a problem suddenly comes to you. I was already home when I struck an admonishing blow to the forehead: “that’s it!” Somewhere I had come upon something the author termed “existential vacuum”. A phenomenon where a person becomes aware of a lack of meaning in their life. I darted to the bookcase and pulled the volume down. “There are various marks and guises under which the existential vacuum appears,” I read, “a will to power, the will to money (...) It often eventuates in sexual compensation (...) Such widespread phenomena as alcoholism and delinquency would not be understandable unless we recognize the existential vacuum underlying them.”

The author in question was Viktor Frankl, an institution by every right. An Austrian Jew, Professor Frankl spent several years in various Nazi concentration camps, Auschwitz among them, during World War II. Apart from a sister, his entire family perished at Nazi hands: his father was starved to death in one camp, his mother was gassed at Auschwitz, his wife and his brother were killed in the gas ovens. He managed to survive years of grueling torture, stripped to the barest existence, every possession lost, and every hour expecting extermination. He was already a well established medical psychiatrist and neurologist before the war. The concentration camp experience would change his life and forge his theories for ever.


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Freedom and Happiness

There is much meaning in the cliché "truth liberates". There is a certain tranquility of mind that derives from a principled life, born of a sense and conviction of purpose. It might seem ironical that persons who are true and proper, who are unflinching and resolute in front of what they know to be the truth, etc., are the more free. I like to recall one of the more moving concluding passages in Mandela's book. He had been released from jail four years previous, after twenty-seven years.

“I voted on 27 April [1994, at 76 years of age]. When I walked to the voting station, my mind dwelt on the heroes who had fallen so that I might be where I was that day; the men and women who had made the ultimate sacrifice for a cause that was now succeeding (...) I did not go into that voting station alone on 27 April; I was casting my vote with all of them. Before I entered the polling station, an irreverent member of the press called out, 'Mr. Mandela, who are you voting for?' I laughed. 'You know,' I said, 'I have been agonizing over that choice all morning.' I marked an X in the box next to the letters ANC and then slipped my folded ballot paper into a simple wooden box; I had cast the first vote of my life.”

I wanted to close by developing this last theme: the matter of self-fulfillment, as it were; of self-satisfaction, or, ultimately, happiness. Fortunately, I had an experience some months back, which I shall relate, and which - I believe - illustrates the main issues here clearly, and much of what has been said so far.


"We had agreed we would pursue the mark by pushing unaided reason as far as it would go, without resorting to a 'higher authority' offered by religion."


I admit to a certain weakness: there are few other things I enjoy more than a quiet evening out in the open, for an hour or two, spent in invigorating company with a challenging intellectual question to be thrashed out, and with - of course - the inevitable shot or two of sherry (where possible, otherwise any light drink would do, really).

So, it was with relief and excitement that I welcomed my friend’s invitation to go out for a drink. I am hugely indebted to this friend because he always occasions for me an opportunity to exert the brain a bit. There had been so much ado in the preceding weeks about politics, politicians and us voters, that I yearned for sublimer stuff; and this old pal usually represents that. So we drove out. But no sooner was the drink on my tongue than it went completely flat. I hadn’t quite bargained for that topic. “Sorry, mate,” I said, “but I’m not sure I got you.” I did. But I needed to keep a deceitfully confident face and think quickly. This one had caught me unprepared.

He wanted to know why, despite trying with all his good will and effort to develop an upright Christian conscience, he did not feel half as happy or confident as his more permissive friends seemed to be. “They are happy, self-assured and even seem to have everything going for them,” he complained. I swallowed. Putting a brave foot forward, I related a hypothesis somebody had told me some years previous. That no person is so bad that they haven’t done a meritorious deed in their life. And so, sometimes God does decide to reward such persons bountifully on earth.

But I knew I was cheating somehow. I am usually wary to kick off with eschatological reasons as though taking advantage of a religious stance, or appealing to a “higher authority”. It was an unwritten rule between us that we would pursue the mark by pushing unaided reason as far as it would go, because, among other things, religion or the moral life (freedom and its accompaniments) should be about reasonableness and therefore should be clear enough to a truly rational mind, right?

So I changed tack. I told him that his assessment was not surprising. Everyday the media hit you with all manner of glitz and the chic world of the rich and famous, complete with their escapades and uncensorious tantrums. Our lives are inundated with intractable instances of a more permissive lifestyle yielding greater (apparent) satisfaction. Illicit liaisons and dalliances might be illicit, but they are unavoidable or irresistible. So they are taken for normal. Mores don’t exist: they are a loose chain with ever-widening tolerance levels. “Fine,” he said, “but what’s your point?”

We tried to define what happiness is. The distinction between it and pleasure. One is a stable disposition, the other is ephemeral and inconsistent, usually occasioned by some sensible (i.e. perceptible) object. People appear to be happy but may not quite be so. What you see are the externals. Happiness is an internal state that is usually accompanied by serenity. But many of these people can’t bear to sit still and look in on themselves, to listen to themselves: to see what’s going on in their insides. Because they don’t like what they see. So, they constantly have to move around, do something, engage in ceaseless activity; they can’t bear to shut their eyes and reflect.

He had one other aspect to clear up. So we tried to define the nature of true love, starting with what it is not. It is wrongly (or gratuitously, or perhaps both) interpreted as an expression of sexual drives and instincts. Whereas sex should be a mode of expression of love. It is only justified in that forum. True love must be, can only be, committal, which means exclusive. Hence, monogamous marriage. “Otherwise what I would be saying is: I love you so long as you have a beautiful body, so long as nobody else comes my way, so long as you don’t touch my money.” That wouldn’t be love at all, but a sensual pastime to gratify my instincts, which could only end in frustration. Thus, marriage as the only proper setting for sex.

I peered at his face and there was a thin smile forming as he ruminated on all this. In one relieved gulp I downed my remaining drink. Close shave. “Thank you,” he offered. “Anytime, man.” And we left it off there.