The Last of the Human Freedoms

Victor Frankl in his masterwork, “Man’s Search for Meaning” talks about how in the midst of the Holocost, he realized that there was one thing that his Nazi captors could not take from him: his ability to choose how he felt. Frankl wrote about this choice as the last of the human freedoms as “the ability to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstances.”

The words we use determine the choices we see (photo:Simply Saucer)

The words we use determine the choices we see (photo:Simply Saucer)

I notice that our day to day language is littered with how angry something makes us or how we have no choice about a course of action. I’ve made a conscious habit of listening for these words in my own daily language and self-correcting, because once we accept them as truth, they define our reality. That reality becomes an ever narrowing range of responses, to the point where we are no longer aware that we have any choice, and become frogs in a well, trapped by our own unconscious thinking and victims of our environment. Once this is lost, how can we regain our freedom of choice?

It begins with a purposeful self-awareness: listening to our own language and the language of those around us. Every “I can’t” or “I have to” is like adding another brick in our own well. It creates a deeper sense of resignation about our ability to influence our world. Psychologists say that as children we hear the word “no” about 10 times more than we hear the word “yes”. Every “no” reinforces the boundaries of our well, so we grow up with the sense that our world is very limited, that our well is deep and that we are only safe within its confines.

I believe that we create our own reality (wells) and that as owners of these wells, we can use our imagination to grow beyond them. Why doesn’t everyone act on their dreams and liberate themselves from the mundane, self-imposed limitations of life in the well? Because it represents safety and comfort, while life outside the well is one of risk and unknowns. Given the choice (and it is always our choice), most will choose not to choose, and resign themselves to life in the well, bemoaning the fact that they have no freedom.

To use another metaphor: as a warm-up activity, I often start out my playshops asking my group of managers to draw a simple sketch of their perfect day. This generates a lot of creative images, mostly of people living on islands or walking their dogs, sleeping late, meal s with family, shopping and leisurely sports. But once a participant drew a picture that I had to point out to everyone: it was a bird in a cage, with a large hand having opened the door. The young man who drew it said this was his boss’s hand and he was the bird. I asked him, “So you can’t be free until your boss unlocks your cage?”
“That’s right,” he confirmed. I looked at the rest of the group who all found this kind of funny that he could not be free because of his boss. The smiles in the room were likely those of self-recognition. If not the boss holding the key to my freedom, then my kids, my husband, my wife, my parents, my culture. It’s all the same thing.

So at this point I had to ask the inevitable: “Is it possible that this door has been open all along, but you’ve been afraid to fly out?”