“As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler; solitude will not be solitude, poverty will not be poverty, nor weakness weakness.” ~ Henry David Thoreau
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about personal freedom. Not the type of “personal freedom” you see fueling facebook arguments and public demonstrations on capitol building front lawns. I mean the type of freedom that allows one to feel content and beholden to no one, and how to achieve it.
On the surface, “true freedom” sounds quite simple: being able to do whatever the hell you want. But that’s not quite it, is it? I think it is necessary to analyze a little deeper, which leads to thinking about needs versus wants. Put more simply: True freedom is having everything you need.
But what do you really need? Have you ever really thought about this? An earnest examination is not so simple. Do you need that extra outfit you’ve been eyeing online and can’t wait to buy? Do you need the new model iphone? Do you need that promotion at work? That new gadget or car? Why? Will it really make your life finally achieve that elusive balance you’ve been seeking?
If you’re a little uncomfortable with this line of thinking, it’s okay. I am too. It goes against everything most of us are taught as children. “If you work hard enough, you can have anything you want” is a thing we hear a lot in America. Forgetting about whether or not it’s accurate, is that a healthy way to think?
Throughout civilization’s greatest thinkers, this has been a common point of contemplation, and thus, there is no shortage of clever quotes to point us in the direction of wisdom and learnings of those who came before us. From Socrates (“The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.”) to Thoreau (quote above), from Gandhi (“Live simply so that others may simply live.”) to Fight Club (“the things you own, end up owning you). The human race is seemingly surrounded by cautionary wisdom that we can’t be bothered with. We can’t help ourselves, the allure of excess is too great.
The encouraging side of this dissonance however, is that it actually starts to feel really good when you figure out how to start telling yourself “no.” When you begin stripping the unnecessary from your life, it can almost become enjoyable, and the more uncompromising you become with yourself, the more attractive it all becomes. This is something I’ve been learning these last couple months.
I’ll cap this with an example that I read recently in my “the Daily Stoic” book, by Ryan Holiday.
“The late fashion photographer Bill Cunningham occasionally declined to invoice magazines for his work. When a young upstart asked him why that was, Cunningham’s response was epic: “if you don’t take money, they can’t tell you what to do, kid.””
That’s the most punk rock thing I’ve ever heard. That’s true freedom.