The Definition of Freedom (According to a Psychologist)

What is freedom?

Today, in America, we celebrate Independence Day. Yet, even in the land of the free, our definitions of freedom differ dramatically. A historian might focus on the rebellion of thirteen little colonies against a great imperial power. A conservative American might focus on the right to bear arms. A progressive American might focus on freedom of speech. And, on the Fourth of July, some Americans might simply focus on a day free from work and free for fireworks.

What is freedom?

freedom

Photo Credit: weyo (Bigstock)

When I asked my seven-year-old daughter that question, she said, “Freedom is being out in the world for your life.” For a little girl who needs permission to go outside to play, freedom is the right to roam.

In contrast, when I asked my thirteen-year-old son for the definition of freedom, he replied, “Freedom is getting to be unique together.” In middle school, there is immense pressure to conform in order to be cool. So, to simply be himself, along with every other unique soul, is the definition of freedom.

What is freedom?

Apparently, your definition of freedom depends upon who you are—your age and your political persuasion and, probably, your personality and your faith and your fears and your wounds. Indeed, there may be as many definitions of freedom as there are people. So, for what it’s worth, here’s this psychologist’s definition of freedom:

Freedom is accepting that, usually, the freedom we fantasize about does not exist.

We all want to be free of something, and we want to be free of it forever. Sadness. Fear. Loss. Disappointment. Loneliness. Shame. Failure. Addiction. Fatigue. Regret. Responsibility. Limitations. Obligations. Pain. Illness. Death. And natural laws, like gravity and calories and time. Each of us has that one thing, that thing we believe is at the heart of our discontent. That thing we believe we must eliminate from life in order to truly live. That hard thing that people on Easy Street don’t have to deal with.

And most of us, whether we realize it or not, fantasize constantly about how to get free of it, once and for all. For instance…

I used to fantasize that college degrees would make me feel successful, once and for all.

Nope.

I used to fantasize that getting married would take away my loneliness, once and for all.

Nope.

I used to fantasize that owning a house would make me feel at home, once and for all.

Nope.

I used to fantasize that faith would make me feel peaceful, once and for all.

Nope.

Most recently, despite everything I know to be true, I caught myself fantasizing that a bestselling book would solve all my problems. Slowly, over the course of a couple of months, it became a substitute for every other failed fantasy. A bestseller would bring success, stability, security. Once and for all, right? Nope. The truth is, that kind of success creates more problems than it solves.

Freedom is accepting—truly accepting, surrendering to, embracing and being embraced by—the truth that while you’re alive there is no escaping from life, and life is hard.

Even Jesus said, “Do not worry, each day has enough trouble of its own.” Each day. Those are the words not of a man free from suffering, but a man free amidst suffering. Those are the words of a man who is free of the fantasy that freedom from suffering exists. After all, the shortest verse in the Bible is, “Jesus wept.”

What is freedom?

Freedom is realizing that there is no Easy Street. The lottery won’t make you happy, once and for all. Romance won’t make you happy once and for all. Sadness will ebb and flow. Fear will flare up. Shame will visit. You’ll screw up. Pain will come. Some days will be better than others, and there is no magic solution to make them all better. In the words of the poet Robert Frost, “In three words, I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.

Freedom is giving up on trying to escape the natural ebb and flow of life.

Freedom is giving in to being fully human.

Should we celebrate our moments of joy and peacefulness and painlessness? Should we celebrate the moments when life stops ebbing and starts flowing, for a time? Absolutely. Celebrate the hell out of them. Literally. When heaven breaks into this place and time—seeping in like light beneath a heavy, weathered oak door—let us rejoice. But remember, as soon as you become attached to the joy—yes, even joy—then you are no longer free.

Freedom is remembering that our glimpses of the light come and go, because life. goes. on.

If we dedicate our lives to that kind of freedom, it can, in the end, become its own kind of light, even in the darkness, on this side of the weathered door, in us, through us, amongst us. People becoming light, one ordinary, hard, human day at a time.

Question: Does this definition of freedom resonate with you? What is your definition of freedom? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Loveable is available in paperback, digital, and audio and can be purchased wherever books are sold, so you can also purchase it at your favorite bookseller.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • s merritt

    Excellent. Again. Always. Thank you, Kelly. I’m encouraged every time I read your thoughts.

  • Glen Orsak

    Awesome. Every. Word. Thanks.

  • Mary Frances Spence

    Wonderful piece, Kelly…just posted. Love the way you used your children’s perspectives to highlight how we differ in our concept of what freedom is, but at the core our human condition can only be improved by our acceptance (again and again) of our freedom being in the context of suffering.

  • Mari Petersen

    For me, freedom would be being free from having to do anything; any action would be undertaken only because I want to do it. But your post, like always, brings a new (or reminds an old) perspective that moves me to the heart. Thank you!

    • Mari, I sure do understand that instinct. Suffering can been a good teacher, though, and one of the things it seems to teach us is that while we can’t always have what we want, we can still be free even when we don’t.

  • Tricia

    This is an interesting definition of freedom. I am curious though…with this definition, I don’t see how you’d be free to experience joy fully. You’d be waiting for the next show to drop. How is that joyful? For me, freedom and abundance go hand-in-hand. It’s knowing who you really are. It’s knowing joy and feeling it fully without fear. For the love of it. Knowing that there’s an ever abundant supply of it when you can trust enough to let go. And really feel it.

    • It’s a great question, Tricia, and I agree with everything you say. Joy is abundant, bottomless. However, our capacity to experience it continuously seems to be quite limited. If we haven’t embraced this, then we get jaded by joy. We feel like it is taken from us prematurely. Or that we did something wrong to be deprived of it. Or, in hindsight, we decide it wasn’t really joy at all. On the other hand, maybe it’s possible to know that our experience of joy will not be continuous and yet to still not fear it ending, because you trust you will one day experience it again.

  • Mike Gates

    Happy Tuesday, Kelly
    The freedom to be me. Free from the things that drive me. I didn’t get a taste of it until I was 38, but man….life is completely different.
    I really appreciate “Freedom is giving up on trying to escape the natural ebb and flow of life.” If you’ve never been free, that just sounds confusing. More of the same. But if you have been freed, well then you know that ebb AND flow is OK. My futile attempts to avoid or control were way more painful and damaging than any actual event.

    I appreciate you. Happy 4th

    • I appreciate you, too, Mike. And this addition, “My futile attempts to avoid or control were way more painful and damaging than any actual event.” So true, for all of us.

  • Well said, every word!

  • Kitha J Cockrell

    May I first tell you how blessed I was by your precious children’s definitions of freedom! One of the joys in this life is listening and learning from the wisdom of our wee ones! Yes indeed don’t we all want to be able to go out into the world and live life, playfully and freely. And yes don’t we all want to live life being accepted for who we are, and free to accept others as is. I am 70 yrs young and your children’s words I found to be refreshing and inspiring, and made my heart happy, thus a big smile….can I say it made my day! Now we come to your season in life, which by your picture I’m thinking is late thirties or early forties, and it looks as if you’ve learned earlier than some, myself included, that true freedom is hard to find. I really like how you elaborated on that truth so well!! I’m always encouraged by your writings and come away with much food for thought! Now in my season of life here’s what freedom means to me. Freedom means being free to love and forgive everybody unconditionally. Yep, to do the impossible with man stuff, but possible with GOD stuff. Not always easy, usually not, but always by GOD’S grace doable! I’ve never felt more freedom in my 70 years than when by my Father’s grace, I’ve been able to love and forgive who the world says is unlovable, and unforgivable. Yes it’s totally a GOD thing!! He came to set us free, yes free indeed….free to live, love and laugh. And the best part is that this freedom is free for the asking! Yes when we accept that life here is messy, hard, painful and cruel sometimes, and unavoidable, but along with that truth we embrace the truth of the freedom that’s found in a personal relationship with our Creator, then we can enjoy the freedom JESUS died for us to have. One day at a time with JESUS is all I ask.

    • Kitha, thank you for the affirmation of my kids and my writing. I’m grateful. I’m also grateful for your definition! “Freedom means being free to love and forgive everybody unconditionally.” I can’t think of a better definition. 😊

  • Irina Anissimova

    Well said and true. Thank you. This kind of freedom is not easy to achieve and it takes time and life experience to get there. I doubt that one can arrive at this defiition early in life.

    • Irina, I think this is so true. Suffering can be a good teacher if we listen to it. Hopefully, we have to live a little before we encounter too much of it.

  • JC

    I really felt free once. I was a teenager driving my car down some country road with no destination. I had my hand out the window doing air waves and I remember breathing so deep. The only freedom I consider anymore is my freedom to choose. Simply put there are only two choices:

    2 Nephi 2:27

    “27 Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil…”

    I like how I feel when I *SMILE, so I try to choose things that lead to eternal life:

    2 Nephi 9:39

    “39 … Remember, to be carnally-minded is death, and to be *Spiritually-*Minded *Is *Life *Eternal.” [*emphasis added]

    • JC, I love your focus on freedom of choice. Henri Nouwen wrote often of our freedom to choose between the blessing and the curse in any moment. Also, for what it’s worth, I think you’re due for a country drive, no destination, and some air waves. 😊

      • A. Julie

        I second that, think I might enjoy one myself!

  • Marilyn

    This was definitely my favorite blog post so far! And, I’ve liked all of ’em! 🙂 What you’re saying is so very true and I need to be reminded over and over of the truth that life wiil always ebb and flow with challenge, joy, sadness, happiness, disappointment, etc., etc. Freedom is found when I’m not grasping for any particular state, but am relaxing into what is here. Thank you!

  • Thank you for this post! Freedom is definitely a state of mind. We often think that we must be some place else or have something to be free. Just BEING yourself, embracing every fiber of you is enough. Thank you again for your work Dr. Flanagan! I am looking forward to reading your next post! Have a blessed and wonderful day.

  • A. Julie

    To roam, to be unique without pressure… the first is a gift and would be less meaningful as a lifestyle (I like to do some good along the way), the second can be found within, with effort, and I suspect accepting others’ needs and insecurities is part of the package.

    I want a motorcycle but I don’t fantasize, much, that it would solve everything… but I think it would bring pockets of relief and joy vis-a-vis flow experiences.

    Got lucky/wise somehow in my teens and realized the letdown of achieving goals, the necessity of finding others. Have learned to set good size goals for myself, to have some smaller/easier wins to cheer me on the way to much bigger ones. It helps to be proud of making a gorgeous dinner and making progress on a multi year exploration without a fixed goal or end (read: other people may judge as wandering in desert), all in the same day. Pursuing joy is one thing, the things that come with achievement another, feeling requirement to be industrious and/or prove oneself another (and fundamental worthiness you write about on this blog another still – keep it coming, I’m a work in progress).

    “But remember, as soon as you become attached to the joy—yes, even joy—then you are no longer free.”

    This reminds me of something in CSLewis’ “Surprised by Joy.” He discusses the difference between enjoyment and contemplation, and I think the distinction is worthwhile in re your post, and in re contemporary life. I’ve long been a documentarian type, from when cameras had only film, but technology these days… anyway, on to Clive Staples:

     ‘ I read in Alexander’s Space Time and Deity his theory of “Enjoyment” and “Contemplation.” These are technical terms in Alexander’s philosophy; “Enjoyment” has nothing to do with pleasure, nor “Contemplation” with the contemplative life. When you see a table you “enjoy” the act of seeing and “contemplate’ the table… In bereavement you contemplate the beloved and the beloved’s death and, in Alexander’s sense, “enjoy” the loneliness and grief; but a psychologist, if he were considering you as a case of melancholia, would be contemplating your grief and enjoying philosophy. ‘

    • There has never been a wiser man. Love Clive Staples. Thank you for this!

  • Steve Carlson

    “free amidst suffering”

  • nick verzino

    Thank you. I am reading Loveable. Immediately, I was struck. I, too, hid behind my fathers leg. Writing that almost makes me weep. I never heard that from anyone else before. Thanks for writing that. Plus, they had to put barricades in front of the door to keep me in kindergarden. Apparantly, I didn’t want to go.
    There are many things I wish to be free from and free for. At 56 and single still, longing and pining for what I missed. Anxiety.

    Thank you.