Freedom Is an Inside Job

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August 16, 2006

It's easy for freedom lovers to get discouraged these days. The news coming at us is almost always bad. The Leviathan that is government is a heaving behemoth that, like 'the blob that ate Chicago ,' is totally out of control. The police state expands its own powers and territory at every turn, and its design is to control us, to intimidate us into submission, fodder for its unlimited appetite.

There is good news

Freedom doesn't come from the point of government guns or from legislation of governing bodies. It doesn't come from the Constitution. Atheists don't even believe it comes from a God, even though people like Jesus were perfect models of living free. True freedom doesn't require a majority vote or the agreement of another human being. It is not dependent upon the presence or even the absence of another person. Freedom is a choice we make to be true to ourselves in any given moment. Freedom is something we as humans give ourselves. It is the most natural state into which we are born and for which we are wired.

Some assembly required

Like me, you may have acquired some glitches in your operating system. I grew up the youngest in a large, religious family that was hardly free. We were made slaves to a fearful, punitive, 'tribal' family system. We were slaves to my parent's religion, we were slaves to priests in church and nuns in school. We were slaves to whatever a doctor prescribed for us and we were slaves to what the neighbors might think. In fact, we were slaves to any adult anywhere who deigned to order us about. We were slaves to our parent's whims about how we dressed, spoke, and behaved to the extent that they could enforce them. (If there was ever a dispute, and there weren't many, our parents always sided with authority.) We obeyed because we were afraid.

Such an environment does not produce sweet fruit. On the contrary, for me it created voluminous suffering for 20 years of childhood and another 20 after that. It sent me on a journey of unproductive rebellion that placed a tremendous cost on my psychological resources and prevented me from pursuing my dreams and healthy relationships. The pendulum must swing just as far in both directions.

When I think about it, I can hardly believe that I got here from there; it is a world away from the oppression I once knew. As much as I hated the oppression, though, I had internalized it and it dogged my steps everywhere like a one-ton ball and chain. The upside of such horror is that it provided me with impetus to fight my way out. Some things have to be really bad to make one willing to do anything to make it better. This is what adversity will do for a stubborn soul determined to be free.

Even though I was quite ill-equipped for facing the world after being brow-beaten into submission at every turn, I found myself on my own at the tender age of 19. I found a job and a place to live. As no one had taught me how to interact normally with others, I watched how other people did it and tried to do the same. I was like a kid who had grown up with wolves and had no idea how to navigate civilization. It was lonely and scary and I got taken advantage of a lot because I was disconnected from my own inner guidance system. It was probably obvious how ignorant I was and there are always people who eat the ignorant for lunch.

In desperation, I began the process of reconnecting to the voice of my own heart. To do so I had to stop running, turn around and face down the Goliath of tyranny that had invaded my psyche. It was like the Indiana Jones film where an enormous, round stone is rolling down upon him with no way out.

The first thing I challenged was religion. I knew I wanted to believe in something, so I looked for a religion I liked better than my parent's. I found one that seemed better and truer. However, it didn't take long for me realize that it too was 'tribalistic' and suffocating. I mistook freedom for a box with broader dimensions. I was tired of being judged and condemned when I hadn't done anything wrong. That religion, too, fell by the wayside eventually. It left me feeling 'homeless' and scared. Deep down I knew that becoming emotionally dependent on a different group couldn't offer me the freedom my fearful little heart longed for. I still believed in a God, but I learned to live without religion.

After a while, even a deity seemed too much like believing in Santa Claus. I call myself an atheist, but that isn't quite accurate. I am a deeply spiritual person. I believe in the superior power of the unseen, things like Love and Mother Nature. I believe I'm not separate from what is good and vital in life. I can't explain it very well, and I don't even understand it with my limited human mind, but that's OK with me now. Some things don't need to be comprehended to have validity. I've come a long way, baby!

Feeding the Flames of Liberty

The next sacrifice on my altar of liberty was the family system. I had to stop doing things that were carved in stone for my family for the sake of conforming because they were making me sick. The more attuned to my own heart I became, the more difficult it was to keep performing those deeds that were demanded of me that had no vitality, things like going along with hurtful jokes at my or someone else's expense or going into debt to buy gifts.

I'm sure it seemed selfish and cold to my family. They responded pretty violently. I was under the mistaken impression that if I explained to them what I needed, they would understand because families love each other; at least that's what I'd been told. They didn't understand. Love was conditional. I became an outcast, a desperately lonely one. I grieved for my family for years. To me it felt as if they had all gotten on a plane that crashed. They were dead to me all at once because I had chosen to be true to my own self. If there'd been any other option, I'd have taken it.

It took years for me to come to realize that what my family and I had considered 'love' was actually fear. (Conforming so that something bad won't happen is not love.) I was 'loved' as long as I helped uphold the dysfunctional family system, regardless of the cost to my Self. Being true to my Self and my beliefs and telling the truth about what was going on was perceived as an attack on the tribe. It's like the situation between the White House and the media now. Picture the great, bigger-than-life Oz, crying, 'Silence! The Great Oz has spoken!' (1) All the while he didn't know the way home either, but all the little munchkins worshiped him without question.

I have no ill will towards my family, for they knew not love. How could they give it? They knew not freedom, how could they recognize, acknowledge or value it? Sadly, they are afraid of me now. I can see it in their eyes. They're afraid because I won't fearfully kowtow to the tribe or apologize for my life. I won't be silent in the face of cruelty. I question authority. These things are intimidating to people who are invested in the liberty-for-security trade. After a number of years I have now re-established tiny windows of communication with some of my siblings. Some of them won't deal with me at all.

None of this was easy. I had been psychologically hobbled by my environment. That can be rectified with time and hard work, if you're really committed. My constant companion on the journey was an underlying discomfort that I would call unassigned anxiety. The roots of a fear-based religion had penetrated deeply and weren't about to go away quietly. Without knowing it consciously, I just kept holding everything up to a simple litmus test: 'To thine own self be true.' If something didn't resonate with my heart, it was discarded, no matter how painful. I felt I was in a battle for my life because I couldn't live like a slave any longer.

I've learned to hold relationships loosely but with care, as I would a bouquet of violets my child had picked for me. Hang on too tightly and I might destroy the thing I care about. Too loosely, and I'd lose it as well. I guess I'd call it caring about people without an agenda.

Grad School

Freedom is a funny thing; it must grow or it dies. I had to keep feeding the flames of liberty to keep it burning, tearing down previously unexamined icons left and right, so to speak. Unbeknownst to me, I was now ready to take on my biggest challenge ' children.

I wanted my children so much! I wanted to give them all the things my parents couldn't offer me, things like freedom to explore and test how things work, and to experiment without the constant threat of punishment. I wanted them to make messes, get dirty, giggle, scream indoors and to know that they were free to ask me questions about anything and get those questions answered.

I wanted to offer them privacy rather than secrecy. I wanted them to do things they wanted to do. I wanted them to know what it's like to be smiled at, to be touched gently, and to be treated with dignity. I wanted them to know what it's like to come under the gaze of that tender look of affection--you know the one I mean--the one that says 'I love you' without words. If I'd known it when I was small, maybe I wouldn't have had to suffer so much teenage self-loathing.

If I had known the steps of this journey ahead of time, I may very well have withered at the prospect and turned away. Oppression hurts as much coming out as it does going in. My children challenged every single coping skill I still had in place; every bit of knowledge, every emotion, every thing I held dear or feared, every last bit of conditioning my parents handed down to me from their parents that made their lives easier and mine harder. I get the feeling I'm not done yet. Maybe I never will be, but I'll never go back.

Often it was as if I had a little red devil with a pitchfork and pointed tail whispering in my ear that there was an easier way and I knew what it was. I just couldn't allow myself to make my sensitive little ones afraid in order to expedite my own existence as my parents had done. I don't blame my parents anymore. I understand now, that they too had been victimized, and had no healthy role models to show them another way than the poverty mentality. They had both been depression babies in alcoholic families and their survival really had been in doubt.

Some days I felt as if I had turned into ' horror of all horrors ' my mother! Every bit of spanking, slapping, dirty looks, and childishness she had committed against me was buried deep inside and sometimes made me feel like a raving lunatic. Freeing myself of them felt like I was living 'The Exorcist.' I often shut myself off alone until the screaming stopped. I would rather die than do to my children what had been done to me and sometimes I thought I was dying. But I'm happy to report I'm still breathing, usually deeply.

My children often tell me I am their best friend. They are two of mine. They saved my life by providing me the unrelenting impetus to finish the job I had started. We rarely encounter people who treat us with the dignity, friendship and open mind my children and I offer each other. What a very sad commentary on life in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

'Living is easy with eyes closed' (2)

Funny, my ancestors came to America practically penniless and didn't speak the language. They were in search of opportunity and freedom. It's true, America was and still is a land of opportunity for those willing to work hard. Why would anyone think that freedom was something given you? They didn't know that 'you don't have to look any further than your own backyard' for liberty. Because 'if it isn't there, you never had it to begin with.'(1) If you're not willing to battle the temptation to use coercion in your relationships, then freedom won't be knocking on your door anytime soon. I believe I am free to the same degree I offer freedom to others. It sure isn't coming at you from the Capitol Beltway!

I still feel sad that my siblings don't want to be free too. They stay locked up, in hopes of being secure and cared for like children. They stay in a thought prison with the doors locked from the inside. They wouldn't touch freedom 'with a ten-foot pole,' as my Dad used to say. He's gone now; I hope he's free. I comfort myself with the thought that he can now see the validity of what I'm doing.

Freedom, love, peace; all those things that we strive for, they're already right here. If you're looking for them, you're moving in the wrong direction. Freedom is a choice to be true to your self and live in this moment. There is no past or future, there is only this moment. Now it's gone and the next moment is here. Every moment is a new choice.

Love is a choice too. You don't need an object to be in love, to act out of love. Love isn't something you get from someone else any more than freedom is. It's here anytime you choose.

Peace isn't a lack of noise, problems or war. Peace is peace with what's here. What's here may be hate, terror, fear; it may be excitement, laughter or courage. Some things are easier to allow than others, but again, peace does not come from someone else or some set of circumstances. Peace is simply the choice to allow life to show up exactly as it is, to look at it honestly, because what's here is here anyway, like it or not. Resisting life in its rawness doesn't change it. Rawness doesn't ever become less raw. But peace is not dependent on any circumstance. Accepting what is already here for me right now in this moment, is the only way to effect change. "Here's what's happening; now what are our choices?"

Waiting for someone else to do something or give us something is a victim mentality. The word 'victim' brings to mind fear, suffering and crime for good reason. Free people are not victims of life. Life happens to us like everyone else, but we choose our response knowing we will live with the consequences. Free people live with eyes wide open. This is freedom.


  • (1) From 'The Wonderful Wizard of Oz' by L. Frank Baum
  • (2) From 'Strawberry Fields Forever' by John Lennon and Paul McCartney
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Retta Fontana's picture
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Retta Fontana is an atheist, anarchist, baker, potter and parenting teacher.  Children are her favorite people.