In the same way a person can be chained to an oak tree, a mind can be chained to an assumption, a religion, a political party, or any idea of any kind. But the idea, like the tree, should not be blamed. Ideas are inanimate things and are good or bad only in how they are used by the living. Instead it is the chain that must be questioned, along with the motivations of people who work to chain minds to things (especially if they call themselves educators).
A mind is unique in the world for its infinity of ideas, for it can be used to think about almost anything in a million different ways. Any act that deliberately confines a mind to a singular way of seeing the world can not be acting for good. Most communities, from families, to schools, to gangs, have ideas members are expected to adopt without question. This doesn’t make them evil, but it doesn’t make them bastions of freedom either.
Like the rules to a new board game, we read these rules with our minds at half-power, as our goal is to learn and follow. Even under the guise of what we comically call education, most of us, most of the time, are taught to copy. To memorize. To understand someone elses’s theories. What are we being trained for in life by this other than to perform these same thoughtless behaviors when we graduate? And the things that are considered taboo in our societies, acts that violate our traditions, are often followed without anyone involved, from parents, to teachers, to leaders and other enforcers, understanding why. Why is being seen in underwear embarrassing, but being seen in a bathing suit is not? Why are nipples and flesh so scary, when everyone has them? Why are alcohol, nicotine and Prozac legal, but marijuana and Absinthe criminal? It’s un-free thinking, this accepting of an idea simply because someone else said so. If the reasons are so good, they should do well in debate and discussion on their merits, shouldn’t they? Nothing should be beyond discussion.
The beginning of wisdom starts with asking two questions. Why do we believe what we believe? And how we know what we know? They should be stamped on every school book, in every meeting place and in every home where independence of mind and free thinking are advocated. It should be tattooed on the forehead of anyone arrogant enough to dictate orders for others to follow. The children’s game of why, where a child says “Why?” to every answer that an adult offers, often ends with the parent embarrassing the child. “Stop being silly” they say. But it’s the parent who should be embarrassed by their hubris. Why is it so uncomfortable to say “I don’t know”. Why isn’t their pride in their children learning things they don’t know? Isn’t that the basis for progress? We all know less than we think we do, and if we wish to learn more it’s only going to come from taking comfort from questions instead of fearing them. Ignorance is not dangerous if you admit to it. Same for lack of control. It’s a fact most of what we experience in life is hard to understand and out of our control. To feel shame or joy at a fact of life is a decision we’ve forgotten is ours to make.
Without questions we can’t discover the chains we’ve hidden. Chains forced upon us as children when we did not have the will to refuse or ask questions. Chains we bound ourselves to in order to fit in to school, or work, or a community. To be a free thinker means forever seeking relief from assumptions, whether it’s those we’ve made or have been given to us, and to work towards beliefs and ideas of our own choosing. Freedom of thought means a perennial willingness to discover better ideas, smarter opinions, more worthy faiths, more honest feelings, a willingness not only to abandon ideas you’ve held dearly, but to actively seek moments of discovery, moments when you learn a closest held belief has been held for the wrong reasons. The first time I ate Ethiopian food I had to ask three times “Are you sure it’s ok to eat with my hands?”
Never having thought before that a) they are my hands b) it is my mouth, c) I’m paying for the food, and I should be able to do whatever I damn well please with all three. For all of America’s wonders of freedom, we are still tyrannized by the burdens of silverware. Then of course I went to India, and was scolded for eating with my left hand. I’m always wrong at meals it seems. Travel makes clear how arbitrary many rules and customs we defend truly are.
The first challenge is the fear of being wrong
Ready? You are wrong. You are wrong much of the time. I’m wrong too and some of what I write in this essay will be wrong (except for this sentence). Even if you are brilliant, successful, happy and loved, you are wrong and ignorant more than you realize. This is not your fault. None of our theories about the world are entirely true and this is good. If we had perfect answers for things progress would be impossible, as to believe in the idea of progress requires belief in the many ignorances of the present. Look back in time 100, 50, or even 5 years, and consider how misguided the wisest, smartest people of those days were compared with what you know now. Governments, religions, cultures and traditions all change, despite what they say, and there is not a one of them still standing that is exactly the same as it was when it started. The traditions that have remained may have value, but ask yourself: who decided what to keep and what to throw away? And why did they decide what they decided? Without knowing the answers to the questions, how can you know exactly what it is you are right and wrong about in what you believe? Especially if these traditions have been changing for 100s or 1000s of years? It’s ok to be wrong if you learn something and grow from it. In fact often there’s no way to learn without making mistakes.
In many ways you are a wiser, smarter more experienced person than you were in the past. If you believe any progress in your own thinking and understanding, especially regarding your own life and what it means to you, you must admit that the same kind of progress is possible for you in the future. And that progress is accelerated only by freeing yourself from the obligation to always be right. Instead of allegiance to a specific idea, put your faith in your ability to grow and learn. The former is a chain held in place by your own hand. The latter is a door you can hold open, a door to a better self.
The second challenge is other people
Children survive only through conformity. It’s by recognizing the behavior of adults and adjusting to it, fitting in, that they’re able to survive. If babies didn’t learn which kind of cries got them fed, or what kinds of smiles got them attention, they would not live long. We are designed from birth for survival more than freedom. Consider how absurd most advice from gurus sounds if directed at a 5 year old. Start with Buddha’s excellent advice:
“Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who has said it, even if I have said it, unless it agrees with your reason and your own common sense.”
This is the opposite of what children are told by every adult in their lives. Schools teach them specific answers, teachers test and judge them on their ability to memorize and internalize those answers, and parents define rules that control children’s lives in spite of the child’s clear desires. We treat children as if they have no common sense, and for good reason. Often they have no sense at all, common or otherwise. But the question remains: at what point do we teach our children to think for themselves? And how can we be certain they’ve unlearned the lessons we worked so hard to teach them until that day? There are no required college courses called “undoing the damage of the last 18 years of your life” or “how to escape the evil tyranny of your corrupted youth”. We are, perhaps as it always has been or always should be, on our own to figure out what freedom means. But there is no starting gun, no wake up call, for when to become free, much less how to go about doing it given how much of our lives function on our being unfree.
Joining a “Free thinking” group can be nothing of the kind, especially if everyone in the group shares the same brand of atheism, deism, or anything-ism. Freedom grows best in diversity. The more ideas you hear, understand and compare, the greater the odds you’ll think freely about all of them. This can’t happen if you mostly spend time “philosophizing” with people who share 97% of your philosophy. Instead you’re likely just sharpening your prejudices. Sharpening prejudices can be fun. I do it all the time. But it’s not thinking, free or otherwise, and it’s not good philosophy either.
The third challenge is to be alone
Many of history’s great spiritual leaders chose to step away from their cultures and their worlds for a time. Jesus, Buddha, Moses and Muhammad all took long retreats away from everything they knew, freeing themselves from conventions and commitments of normal life. Only then were the able to discover, to transform, to learn and understand themselves in ways that changed the world. They had to separate from the chains and bonds before they could be free, and only then, with new perspective and priorities, did they choose to return. For anyone who knew them, I doubt this choice was popular. Their children, friends, landlords, and tennis partners were less than thrilled about the prospect of them wandering off the face of the earth for 40 days, or 6 months, or however long they chose. They say the fish is the last to see the water. But what if the fish could step out of the tank now and then? You are not a fish. You can take that step whenever you like.
This begs the question, when was the last time you were free from others? The last day you spent alone and let all the thoughts you bury and hide in everyday life rise in your mind? Travel, meditation, long baths, a run in the woods, are all ways to give ourselves a taste of the solitude needed to think freely. Needed to understand ourselves and feel who we actually are. How can you know how much of what you think you want, and think you need is really coming from you? It may be that our truest, freest voice, the voice we call our heart of hearts, is always talking, but it’s quiet and timid and can’t be heard over the chatter of everyday life. Unless we make quiet time to learn how to hear it. And of course, we’re still free to ignore that voice, but at least we’ve given ourselves a chance to listen. Only then is it possible to sort through our lives to strengthen the connections with others who truly share our feelings and thoughts about life. Being free has never been easy, which explains why so few, despite what they say, truly are themselves.
By Scott Berkun, January 26, 2009