This poor fella lives at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo, where I caught him staring at a mural depicting beautiful wide open spaces. Freedom is painted on the wall of his cage.
Which made me wonder. How free are we? Who are our captors? And have they painted a mural of freedom just to placate us and keep us on the treadmill?
I think one of the freedom illusions of modern American society is career. We’re told as children and young adults that we can do anything we want to, anything we put our minds to, but what actually happens in most cases is that we go to college, then begin a career, then assume a hefty car payment and home mortgage, then spend our money on pointless consumption trying to stay happy in a lifestyle that we find increasingly unfulfilling, all the while wishing we could quit our jobs and do something more meaningful but constrained by hefty debt payments. The more hopeful among us simply run faster, work harder, and climb higher, hoping to someday achieve success – whatever the hell that means – while the majority of us choose a poison (booze, shopping, trashy TV) and succumb to our boredom. Doesn’t feel like freedom, does it? And yet no one actually required this of us; perhaps we are our own captors.
I think living the dream requires waking up from the zombie-like trance of career and consumption. Living conscientiously. Taking responsibilities for our choices, not placing the blame for our dissatisfaction on others, and recognizing that only we possess the keys to our prison cells.
There is a cultural movement called Voluntary Simplicity in which participants actively question and sometimes eschew the assumptions and expectations of modern society. Janet Luhrs, author of the Simple Living Guide, was the first to introduce me to the concept. Subscribers to this philosophy actively think about which decisions make them happy versus which ones needlessly complicate their lives and then make intentional choices about how to live. Some of them, like Tom Hodgkinson, author of The Idler, quit their full-time careers to pursue lower-paying part-time freelance work; they pay for this freedom by moving to low-rent areas, growing their own vegetables instead of eating out, hosting parties instead of frequenting the pub, and generally simplifying their lives and cutting out the fat wherever possible. Others maintain their full-time careers but with a new awareness of the blunder of confusing a successful career with a successful life. If you’ve ever witnessed a formerly ambitious professional suddenly stop working late and climbing the corporate ladder to instead spend more time with his family and on his personal hobbies, you’ve witnessed someone who finally dispelled the career myth.
The false promise of career is just one example of the ways in which we cooperate with societal expectations to imprison ourselves. What are some other examples of freedom painted on our prison walls? And, more importantly, how do we break through the mural to the other side?