Photo by Ildar Sagdejev.
Photo by Ildar Sagdejev.

What does it mean to be free?

Better people than me have taken on this question, and yet consensus is hard to come by. Freedom is far too big a word to take on in a short forum like this. Rollo May barely had space in Freedom and Destiny to make cogent his ideas on the subject, which were derived from and expanded into many other works.

In the existential community, we are pretty sure that freedom and responsibility are somehow joined. I sometimes maintain they are identical, synonyms. You are not free to walk upon the Earth, as you realistically have no other choices. Similarly, you are not free to be yourself. You are yourself regardless of your efforts otherwise. You MUST be yourself. You are free, to a degree, to choose that self, and no more.

The other thing we tend to acknowledge is that our freedom tends to be constricted. We are subject to limitations such as our genes, which are relatively hard to escape; our upbringing and social status, which might be easier; the history of the time and place in which we find ourselves, and all other forms of determinism. Especially, we are limited by death: the one inescapable, immutable fact of life. Life is terminal.

Within all these constraints, we find ourselves constrained further. Our apparent freedom limits our actual freedom: we cannot make choices of which we are unaware. And awareness covers a lot of ground, requiring both knowledge of and belief in a possibility. Maybe you could walk away from your life and become a lion tamer, and you know intellectually it is true, but you do not believe it is possible. For you, it is impossible. You will never find out its truth.

Here, we have narrowed the discussion of freedom to mere choice. You may only choose between options of which you are aware. Even when our choices are unconscious ones, such as our patterns of behavior, we have to be aware of a different way of being prior to being able to choose it. This is the meat of much of Irvin Yalom’s interpersonal therapy, which has been more or less swallowed whole by existential practices.

Mostly our relevant choices fall within a fairly narrowly defined range of options—and we tend to like it that way. You say you like having 30 choices of toothpaste at the grocery store but in fact you cannot process that much information. You leave happier when you have 3-5 choices. Remember when you were in fifth grade and your writing teacher told you to write a story, without giving you any further instruction? For a few people, this was a magical time: unlimited freedom. For more of us, though, the unrestrainedness of the choice was torturous. How to choose between an infinity of options? Where to start?

Sometimes, you choose between undesirable options. You look for work starting in the newspaper. You call every employer advertising a job for which you are qualified. Or you go to and apply for everything there. What are your other options? Maybe you have none, maybe you see none, maybe you choose to believe there are none. But as humans, we tend to work in our own self-interest, making the best available choice for us.

Is prostitution a choice? For some people, it is more obviously a choice, and for some people less obviously. Is it a choice to work for Wal-Mart or McDonalds for poverty wages—or three adjunct faculty jobs for a combined total of $20k a year? Sure.

A question we need to ask ourselves, though, is what makes prostitution the best choice for the person choosing it? If the answer is genuinely that they enjoy their work, or even that they can live with their work and really enjoy the money, maybe we have to leave it alone. Most prostitutes, though, don’t live in such a dreamy personal-responsibility-world.

They live in a world of crushing poverty, unemployment, institutionalized racism enacted at the level of social engineering, crime, and drug use.

We have to ask the same question about the adjunct faculty and other menial workers earning much less than poverty wages, or the schoolteachers earning a living wage but working a hundred hours a week (the only times this week my wife has not been working are when she has been sleeping, and she doesn’t sleep a lot). What makes this the best choice for us?

We can’t exactly march into our bosses’ offices and demand better. At some of my jobs, the power structure is so hopelessly bureaucratic that I don’t really have a boss and, even if I did, I’d have to travel a thousand miles (half of it just in hallways) to find it. Even given this unlikely exigency, the people in charge don’t care. If they don’t just fire us, they will politely send us back to work with no concessions.

Martin Luther King Jr. noted that business never makes concessions to labor unless it is forced to do so: “The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress. Out of its bold struggles, economic and social reform gave birth to unemployment insurance, old-age pensions, government relief for the destitute and, above all, new wage levels that meant not mere survival but a tolerable life. The captains of industry did not lead this transformation; they resisted it until they were overcome. When in the thirties the wave of union organization crested over the nation, it carried to secure shores not only itself but the whole society.”

Our working conditions become worse and worse. The 40-hour work week is a thing of the distant past. Living wages likewise. Since the global economic crisis of 2007/8, 95% of the gains made in the US economy have gone to the top 1% of “earners” (more like “holders”). These super-rich now take home 24% of all US wealth each year, and a single billion dollars is no longer enough to qualify for the Forbes 400 list.

“Personal responsibility” is a tenet of a particular political ideology, a reason and means to blame the poor for their poverty. But nobody chooses to be poor. Everyone tries to do better than their parents. A person might make bad choices, but people make the best choices they can within the range of options available—or apparently available—to them.

Nobody chooses to work at McDonalds because it is their highest career aspiration. They choose it because there is nothing else available, because they have applied for all the jobs in the newspaper and are paying too much for an online degree to try to qualify for more of them. Teachers don’t work 100 hours a week because they want to, they do it because quitting is unacceptable. They sacrifice for your children because they love them and can’t condone walking way no matter how bad conditions get. Other options?

I don’t work three adjunct positions because I am a greedy job-hog living the high life. I do it just to make ends meet, and I don’t live extravagantly. I do it because the other options are equally unsavory. I would jump at a full-time gig but there aren’t enough to go around. At one of my schools, there are literally zero full-time instructor positions in my discipline to apply for. But my other options are to give up on psychology completely, go get a stable gig waiting tables or something. If I could even get that.

We work these menial jobs because they are our best option. Rather than blame us, call us lazy, prevent any social or political action, perhaps it might be more productive to have a look at the conditions that make these menial jobs the best options?

— Jason Dias

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