The image is a familiar one: an aging man or woman who becomes more and more bewildered and angered at the usual political corruption, or the pace of technological or social change. To protect themselves they become more and more strident and inflexible, and retreat behind whatever cultural or religious certainties they can. In the face of a world they suddenly realize (or have been reminded) is wide and various, and in the face of their powerlessness against this fact, they are convinced the only solution to this “problem” is believing One Way is the Only Way.

Thinking about this, it struck me recently that even though many of us don’t retreat behind some dogma as a result, we are also just as powerless in so many ways. Consider how little understanding we have of so many of the things we depend upon, from smartphones to food production to transportation. Our lives are largely at the mercy of those who provide us with everything from actual shelter and nourishment down to the merest conveniences few of us can imagine living without.

And more: nearly all of the political, technological, scientific and religious issues that engulf the world today (national or state budgets, global warming, evolution, alternate sources of power, gas prices, wars here and abroad, whatever murder trial everyone is following, theology and all religious bickering) are in the end so technical and specialized that many of our opinions on them are based on little more than summaries by those specialists, and our adherence to one view or another is rarely objective.

In my own life, those subjects I’ve given so much of my time to (history, art, religion, poetry) are all reliant upon a level of specialization I will never attain; and a great deal of them involve my reading translations from ancient or dead languages into modern English. In this sense I, too, am quite literally dependent upon the summaries and assumptions of scholars whose work I will never be able to check completely, if at all; and yet they are all I have, and if I want to move forward I have to trust them. There is great fulfillment here, but also the same kind of powerlessness mentioned above.


This sense of powerlessness seems undeniable to me. However, I’m not sure about the a similar issue, which is our freedom. As it’s been said, human beings are condemned to freedom, to unavoidable personal responsibility. Even in the face of vast social injustice and prejudice; even in the face of huge corporate and political power; even in the face of the enormous cultural and technological influences both of devices (phones, TVs, computers, the internet) and their products (music, movies, books, news, videos, data)—even in the face of all of these things, we are in fact free to do what we want in response to all of them, even if this is immensely difficult.

Or is this actually not true? How free are many of us if we’re not even aware that we can react against the religion we were raised with, or the political or cultural norms we live amidst? Commentators both left and right, using the racial or nationalist or academic jargon of their choice, all love to make themselves and their fellow adherents feel powerful, and in control. And yet sometimes I feel most of the world actually resembles two children I saw out in public recently: one little girl was sitting quietly to herself and looking curiously around when, as if she’d been acting up, her father sitting beside her handed her his phone and said, “Do you want to look at videos on daddy’s phone?”—and she obediently did so. Then there was the little boy sitting across from his mother at a restaurant: for the entire meal she had her face in her phone, and when the he tried to interact with her she yelled at him and said, “I’m going to tell daddy what a bad boy you’ve been.”

Just think of the larger social or political versions of either of these situations, where nearly every one of us is put in the place of these children and, through no influence or power of our own, certain horrible assumptions, habits and realities are thrust upon us, and become ingrained in all that we do. Because technically these two children will eventually have the ability, the “freedom,” to choose how they deal with technology and how they interact with other people, but when their days now are filled with insidious situations like these, how free will they ever be to actually choose something else?

In the same way, yes, someone living in a slum is also technically “free” to eventually leave, just as someone who cannot read is technically “free” to learn how to read and one day tackle Tolstoy. But if environmental, economic or social factors are heavy enough to deter this, how real is this supposed freedom? What is the use of any Bill of Rights when the freedom to actually act on them is so frequently impinged? What are many of us surrounded by, but empty rights? We’re usually given the exception to the rule here, the person who grew up amid poverty and abuse who made something great of their lives; or the person with money and a book-deal who can now tell us how great it is to live off the grid and grow their own food. But these are called “exceptions” for a reason.

When looked at in this way, my usual saving grace in situations like this doesn’t hold. It’s very easy for someone like me—raised in general middle-class comfort by two wonderful parents, and who was never burdened with the idea of seeking success or reputation for its own sake, and who was generally allowed to be curious and take risks—to say that one thing we can all do in the face of political and corporate and technological influence is to quietly subvert it in our own way, every day, with a quiet and knowing grin. In reality, though, we seem to only be as free as our awareness allows us to be; our “freedom,” such as it is, seems to be dependent upon our ability to be curious, to take the risk that will allow anything to happen, or to imagine lives other than our own, let alone to imagine a life for ourselves vastly different than the one we are living. And this kind of freedom is rare, is never a given, and needs to be helped along, influenced, apprehended and grasped. When I heard of people thanking special teachers or friends in their lives I no longer scoff as I once might have, since in many instances it’s the chance influence of some stranger suddenly exploding a life of habit that makes all the difference.

This is surely an exaggerated view of the influence of both nature and nurture, but sometimes high contrast can help us see the real picture better. But when the exaggerations on all sides settle, what is that real picture? Thinking all of this over, I certainly understand the anxiety religious people have always felt over the issue of predestination and free will: they desperately want to come down on the side of freedom, but the disturbing and unsettling reality of predestination is always there. Is it here somehow too?



8 thoughts on “Powerless But Free?

  1. Adam and Eve were perhaps the only truly free human beings in history. After that came Determinism, with one caveat: we have the freedom to choose God or to not choose God.

  2. Wow, Tim – fantastic post. There’s so much to parse here and to think over. This is fertile ground – “we seem to only be as free as our awareness allows us to be”. Growing up poor, in a home where addiction and violence played a role, my freedom might have been a very short leash, had it not been for books and those chance adults who were at the right places and times.

    I remember this whenever I look at other people’s choices. What if no one showed up at the right time for them? What if no one taught them a love of reading and learning? Even now, I know much of my freedom is delusional, constrained by society and a lack of in-depth understanding of the forces at work around me. I’ll stop here – there is much in this post to mull over. Thanks for the kick-start to my brain this morning!

  3. “When I heard of people thanking special teachers or friends in their lives I no longer scoff as I once might have, since in many instances it’s the chance influence of some stranger suddenly exploding a life of habit that makes all the difference.”
    A stranger came into my life more than twenty years ago and disturbed my life of habit. He’s an important friend on whom I rely and lean whenever I take risks to move on. I want to write about this because the interaction and connection between us is like none other I know.

  4. Reblogged this on Daniel Paul Marshall and commented:
    Tim has the uncanny ability to see beyond the usual way we connect things to each other & what those connections mean & say something not only insightful & smart but something essential to us making better choices with the information that is out there, bombarding us or waiting to be found. To but it bluntly, he’s good.

  5. If you are not already familiar, I would highly recommend Sam Harris’ book, Free Will. Whether you agree or disagree with all of his arguments (I find myself on the fence about many of them) it is a valuable addition to this discussion.

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