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?

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.

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In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.

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About Kelly

Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.