If attention is the currency of the internet, then anxiety is the currency of modern society. We are part of a massive, finely tuned anxiety machine that offers us the promise of freedom while churning out a dizzying array of choices that overloads our decision-making bandwidth, and distracts us from what really matters. More choice does not equal more freedom. 200 kinds of toothpaste do not make us free. When we are free, we recognize the difference between purposeful, self-owned choice and simply selecting from options presented to us. Freedom isn’t given, it’s taken, and extraordinary results come from managing the anxiety of freedom that is key to transformational change.
We are at our best when we are creating toward some meaningful purpose. In this flow, we find fulfillment. Freedom is essential to this creative process, so if we are free, why aren’t we fulfilled? Why are we a nation of Zanax-popping nervous Nellies? Part of it is uncertainty about the economy and the disruptive forces of new technology, and part of it is deliberately caused by those who profit from our fear. A nervous population is a compliant population.
Despite the violent crime rate being the lowest since the 60’s, we are assailed daily with stories in the news of violence all around us. Fighting an endless war on terror helps keep us terrified. Never mind that we are four times as likely to be killed by lightning than by a terrorist. More laws and more control serve security, they don’t serve freedom. A free population is secure, but a secure population isn’t necessarily free.
To be free, we must be liberated from our fear of change and take back ownership of what it means to be a successful human being. When others own the definition, we’re subject their rules. Our purpose becomes centered on compliance, driven by fear of failure and loss. It makes us, in the words of Noam Chomsky, “Geared to obedience and training in needed skills.”
When we choose to define ourselves not by how well we fit the boxes built for us by church and state, but by a vision of something deeply meaningful and bigger than ourselves, we turn away from compliance and toward mobility. It’s the difference between doing what we’re told, and doing what moves us.
The choice between 30 flavors of mint gum obscures the greater question, “What kind of life do I want to lead?” It distracts us from confronting our contradictions and taking responsibility for our situation. Choosing from what is offered lets us off the hook for failing to own who we purposefully choose to be.
In the equation of freedom, our challenge is to solve for X; the anxiety that comes from the unknown. We manufacture it when we’re faced with questions for which we have no easy answer. To cede responsibility for our freedom to those who promise to remove our anxiety for us is a trap. Freedom requires giving up control but not responsibility for consequences. We can only act and roll the dice. There is no right choice or wrong choice, only results.
We can’t smash the system without smashing ourselves in the process. We replace an old system only to be enslaved by a new one. Unplugging doesn’t solve the fundamental conundrum that we are each responsible for defining our world. It is a paradox of our condition that we need anxiety to move us forward, where things are uncertain. We need to become comfortable with ambiguity and contradiction if we are to visioneer a future that demands we change, and find fulfilment in the process.
The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion – Camus