Taking Responsibility for Freedom

But pick and choose.

Robot or Man. Machine- or hand-made, You cannot have both. Greed, I keep reminding you, Is the failure to choose. The unwillingness to pick one thing over Another. Wealth or simplicity; you cannot have both.

~Diane Wakoski, 'Greed: Part 8'

While freedom may well be man's natural state, modern man no longer lives naturally. If we accept the constant blandishments of our current culture ' if we continue to participate in the comforts of its rampant and mindless materialism while rejecting perforce honest hard work of the spirit ' we must also accept the physical, mental, and spiritual restrictions that culture places upon us.

Take my students, for example. Most of them live at home with their parents. On one hand, this makes some sense, given that they attend a community college, intended, as its name implies, for the local community and which, therefore, does not have student dormitories. Part ' perhaps most ' of the college's attraction stems from its combination of low tuition and the fact that students can save even more money by living at home while they take their first two years of classes.

On the other hand, though, I wonder how they can do it ' I wonder how they can remain at home under their parents' continuing control. Now and then I hear them complain that they can't do this or that, that their parents (unfairly, in their minds) restrict the freedoms they think they deserve now that they've graduated from high school and legally become adults. Their father expects them to come home at a certain time of night, perhaps, or their mother expects them to go to church on Sunday morning. Hearing them makes me think back on my own experience and the things I wanted, the way I thought, as a college freshman.

Since I was financing my education myself, I too chose to stay in town, though I attended the local university rather than the community college. While the university had dormitories, of course, I had the option as a local student to save money by remaining at home.

Living on campus certainly would have had its advantages. I'd have been within easy walking distance of my classes, of the library, and of all the various and intriguing social aspects of college life. I would also have had all my meals prepared for me. But I blanched at the prospect of having a roommate. I had no desire to live with some randomly assigned stranger in a small room affording little if any privacy and share my life with him. And I didn't want to be constantly surrounded by school and be totally submersed in it.

But I didn't want to live at home, either. That, in many ways, struck me as an even worse alternative. We lived in a relatively rural area, and it would have been very difficult for me to get to campus. I would not have been able to hitchhike (a very acceptable mode of personal transportation for college students in the early Seventies), and biking over the hills between our house and the campus every day would have proved both difficult and tiring. Even more importantly, however, I wanted to free myself from my parents' control. Like most 18 year olds, I longed for the freedom of adulthood. I wanted to come and go when I chose, eat what I wanted, dress as I wanted, let my hair grow if I wanted ' and I knew I could do none of those things if I remained at home, like a child. As long as I accepted their gifts to me ' as long as I lived for free under their roof, ate the food they bought, and generally accepted their hospitality ' I had an obligation to live by their rules, to live the way they expected me to live.

I chose, then, a third alternative ' a friend and I found a small apartment to share. Although it was about seven miles from campus, it was much closer to a main highway which followed along the river flat, making it easier for me to either bike or thumb my way to campus. In this apartment, I would not be surrounded by college all the time ' I knew that living in the community would give me more independence and freedom. While I would be living with someone, we each would have our own room and, perhaps more importantly, we already knew and liked one another's company.

But there was a price to pay for this freedom. Sometimes that price was simply money. I had to find a way to make what little I had cover all my newly acquired bills. After I paid the rent, I had to contend with the electric and gas bill and the phone bill. And I had to have money left over to buy food with. No one took care of these things for me anymore. It was all up to me.

But not everything is money. I had to pay a price in time, as well. My choice to take an apartment without having a car made it more difficult to get to campus. I would often leave about an hour before my class started just to make sure I got there on time. My decision to live in town also made it harder to get to the library in the evening or to take part in campus activities. I had to really want to participate in something to spend the extra time and effort either to stay on campus after my classes ended or to come back later on.

I also, of course, paid a social price. I didn't meet nearly as many people or go to as many parties as I would have if I had chosen to live in one of the dormitories. And, being one of those few, curious people who only appeared on campus for classes, I certainly felt suspect at times.

But I had to make a decision. I had, as the poet Diane Wakoski wrote 30 years ago when I was an undergraduate, to pick and choose. Freedom or convenience ' I could not have both. Freedom or money ' I could not have both.

Many of my students who are still living with their parents don't (or don't want to) understand this. They think they 'can have it all,' that they should be able to party all night and slough off their school work without any repercussions from their parents, and that it's simply repression when mom and dad say, 'As long as you live under my roof, you live by my rules.'

But they can't. When their parents pay the bills, they call the shots. 'He who pays the piper,' they say, 'calls the tune.' That this saying is a clich' does not make it any less true.

And yet how many of us who are no longer students still make the same sort of complaint about our lives? Just as they whine that 'I'm 18 years old and an adult, and yet my parents restrict my freedom by expecting me home by 11:00 p.m. ,' we whine that 'I have certain inalienable rights, and yet the government restricts my freedom by expecting me to pay taxes and by sending my children off to war.' We generally recognize that a teenager who whines like that just doesn't understand how the world works, that freedom requires responsibility, and that until we take responsibility for our lives, we will not have the freedom we want. It's harder for us to recognize that same failure to understand how the world works in our own situation.

Freedom requires responsibility. And yet how many of us are truly willing to take responsibility for our own freedom, for our own lives? How many of us, for example, take true and total responsibility for something as basic and fundamental as our own food, for that essential connection to the earth that sustains our very lives? The vast majority of us depend totally upon Power and its Economic System to provide that for us. We eschew any caring for, or connection to, the land. We're unwilling to make the effort it would take to produce our own food. We literally refuse to get our hands dirty. We, by and large, much prefer immersing ourselves in the infinite greed of the marketplace and the ease and comforts of 'civilized' life it provides ' for our cars and our oil furnaces, our roads and our televisions, for our fresh strawberries and pomegranates delivered fresh in the dead of winter. Most of us have lived this way for so long that, like teenagers living off their parents, we simply take for granted the effort, the networks and organizations, that bring those things to us. Just as they don't really understand what it takes to keep the lights on and put food on the table, we have little if any idea about where food or electricity comes from or how they got here ' little if any idea about what, exactly, it took to achieve and maintain this state of being, this level of ease and comfort. And then, wanting the comforts but lacking both true knowledge of (and any responsibility for) them, we complain like spoiled teenagers about the necessary restrictions the System requires of our minds and our lives.

We are as dependent on this System, and upon Power, as these teenagers are upon their parents. How then can we rightfully, forcefully, or justifiably claim we have had freedom taken from us when we refuse responsibility even for our own sustenance? Do we want life given to us, or do we want to work to create it for ourselves and take responsibility for it ' good or bad, successful or not?

We have to pick and choose. We have to decide between our comfortable, easy, oil-based technological lifestyle on one hand and freedom of thought and action on the other. Wealth or simplicity? We cannot have both. We can regain those freedoms we claim to hold so precious only by reclaiming that responsibility, and all responsibility, for our own lives. We don't have to fight for freedom; we just have to work for it.

Your rating: None
Craig Russell's picture
Columns on STR: 35

Craig Russell is a writer and musician in upstate New York.