May 10, 2011

Free to Be?

Something the whole package of this past year—life in small-town Central Asia and returning to the States—has got me thinking about:

In a closed-circuit, ascription-status traditional society (farming village) you’re born into a certain role. You don’t have as much surface-level freedom of choice, and you have a lot of older people living close to you, peering into your life and influencing your decisions according to age-old customs. In an open-circuit, achievement-status modern society (Austin) you’re born with a blank slate. You have near-complete surface-level freedom of choice, and the short-term social consequences of negative choices are almost nil because of anonymity and the lack of a real cultural guideline that tries to determine your lifestyle.

We value the open-circuit model, and in some ways open-circuit is good—you have a large opportunity scope and nobody’s going to stop your dreams. But the thought that that’s always going to work out assumes a lot of good about the human individual—that we will make the best choices given an infinite set of options with no advice or constraints … right—and it also ignores an even more basic fact of human nature, which is that we are creatures of habit in a profound way. Even if we decide to form our own “personal culture” and even if it’s a good one, we will always behave according to a routine that we develop by nature—wake up at 8, coffee, blah blah, day in, day out. Freedom from norms is more or less an illusion, because as soon as we’ve broken out of someone else’s we’ve formed our own—with the difference being that now we’re alone in our practices. So we’re never really “free”—in the best of circumstances we will still live within the constraints of routine and in the more likely case we will destroy ourselves by pursuing freedom (both freedom of choice and freedom from advice) until either we kill ourselves or we ruin our potential. In many ways, on our own, we’re less free than the Afghan villager who was born a goat farmer and will marry whomever his parents picked from day one.

That’s because, although the Afghan farmer will never drink a drop of alcohol, see a punk show or read Charles Bukowski, he knows what it means to be himself. There’s no real question as to what life is about, or how to build a house, how to raise kids, how to make a living, what art means and is for, why he has to do what he’s doing and how his life and work have a direct impact and meaning in his world. There’s less opportunity, more social responsibility and more cultural constraints, but the upshot is he’s got a clear sense of purpose un-muddled by overwhelming options, he’s got people really around him to help him in any way as long as he contributes and the same aspects of his culture that constrain him are also those that give his life meaning via ages of torch-passing and tradition.

We, on the other hand, are basically lost. Even the best of my friends, the most-educated, most earnest, big-hearted ones, are desperately trying to figure out what the hell to do with the situation we all find ourselves in, which to draw a metaphor is basically a bigger landscape than anybody’s ever been in—with no map. We can each go wherever we want! So we get lost, we make poor choices, we end up stuck in ruts or circles, we lose each other in the darkness and we end up alone, wondering who we’re supposed to be and where the help was when we got lost. The smartest and most well-meaning of my friends still can’t really speak into my life because they’re lost, too, just on their own different path.

In many ways our parents haven’t “been there” to show us the way. Ever-expanding technology and mobility have allowed us to make a living without working in traditional ways and to go wherever whenever in a way that nobody has before us. We are overstuffed on information, and so even in terms of forming opinions the world is getting harder to navigate as we learn every single possible nuance of every single issue, to the point where our own brains paralyze us with a thousand caveats to any thought we might have.

I think (1) our isolation from our peers and predecessors (including parents), (2) our exploded opportunity scope, and the synthesis of the two, that is, (3) our generation’s bewilderment at what to do, who to do it with and what it all means, share a common ancestor—a divorce from the planet Earth for the pursuit of comfort, commodity, stability and, of course,independence and opportunity.

Our parents sought to give us the best personal “set up for success” they could, and to build a world that was constantly advancing technologically. So i think about it like my generation is on top of this huge tower of opportunity/technology/mobility/information/access, and whatever it is my ancestors could say via tradition is way, way, way down at the side of this tower. Even if we wanted to hear them (which most of the time we really don’t), they wouldn’t know what to say to us. And so we’re up here, isolated and wondering what the hell to do in uncharted territory with no sherpa, and at the same time feeling entitled to this situation (which we did not create).

This situation affects our family life in a significant way, too. The American pattern is you grow up with just your two parents and your siblings, and you feel cramped so you get out and individuate yourself—and eventually you’re living alone, with a few friends who know you pretty well up to a point, working a job you only stay with for the money. When you eventually get married you repeat the process. Your kids feel the same way you did when you were eighteen—and so off they go to figure everything out for themselves. Even the best families basically drift apart after eighteen years. In a village you’ve got a surrogate family of a dozen dads and moms. You learn a lot more from a wider set of mentors and in the end you don’t feel the need to get away from your biological parents—because you were never really “stuck” with them in the first place. The paradox is there’s a deeper emotional freedom to live together because there’s less physical freedom from each other.

I think if we came back down to the planet we could do better. Seeing that the rain chooses its own time to water crops pretty much cures an entitlement complex. We would have to rely on each other to get the work done, and everybody would have their purposes defined through necessary roles, and because everybody’s doing life together (not setting up coffee appointments to “catch up,” but truly living together and truly making it possible for each other to live) our relationships and emotional lives would become much richer. Get rid of your fridge and you’re out in the market and the fields a lot more, chatting people up.

We would also re-learn the value of cultural constraints, and come to understand that the “rules” for doing something are there for a reason—because in a society closer to the ground and farther from commodified options you can’t just buy your way out of a mud house caving in, or eBay a herd of goats escaping from the corral. Things matter beyond their economic cost, and work feels important because it literally keeps you and your village alive.

I think in many ways it’s impossible for American society to get back to village life, and I also don’t think it’s completely better. In an ascribed-status society that devalues women, if you’re born a woman there’s no opportunity scope of advancement for you—in fact there’s nothing for you but a lifetime of being devalued. You’re screwed. That is the downside. We’re all messed up everywhere. But it’s a trade-off, and there are some things to take and some to leave behind from every culture. As long as we live with individualized opportunity as the highest goal we will continue to live in relational prisons—comfortable, quiet, clean, air-conditioned, padded prisons, but prisons nonetheless.

So i think it’s good to think about this. Do you feel trapped by the individualized comfort of your life, or overwhelmed by the seemingly infinite ways you could live? Do you have an innate sense that you are missing a tribe? That you should belong to a really tight group that’s always in your corner, helping you out? That you weren’t born for infinite choice and that you do need guidance? That the human isn’t really built for the kind of stoic grandeur that our culture of do-it-yourself-for-the-first-time-ever-with-no-help suggests?

Although Jesus’s house parable obviously talks about a bigger concept than just this idea, I think it’s a relevant metaphor. The house on the foundation is “stuck” while the house on sand has options to change, to blow away, to become something else, to go with the flow—but ultimately to destroy itself. It’s more free in a certain sense but you see what that kind of freedom leads to—the same things that our American free-for-all type of freedom leads to in my generation. When bad things happen, though, it’s the foundational constraints on the “stuck” house that makes it ultimately way more free—not free to do whatever it wants, but free to remain what it was made to bewhich is a house. Just some thoughts I’ve been having. Discuss! Evanistan.

[Photo by MLSBKR @ Flickr]

Here's What others have said:

  1. Jo-Anne

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    I just read your comment on my blog, haha. Yeah you’re right, I knew I didn’t pull that term out of my ass, I got it from somewhere. What you’re talking about is so interesting, and something I’ve been thinking a lot about since I got a job. It’s like we have all this opportunity and freedom, but it becomes too much of it and we basically somehow find ourselves in this big mess that we have to figure our way out of. Crazy. But anyway, I hope to talk to you soon, it’s been a while!


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