We Americans love to celebrate freedom, so much so that we set aside a special day each summer to celebrate our country’s declaration of independence. America prides itself as the champion of freedom for peoples across the globe. Since the United States’ inception, we have been willing to commit our lives and resources to defend those who desire liberation from dictatorial rule. We brazenly denounce despots who shackle their people with oppression, stripping them of the dignity that is inherent in human nature. We correctly proclaim that liberty is a God-given right that cannot be arbitrarily removed by those who wish to ignore freedom’s centrality to that which is good in societies. We have been trained to understand that the lack of freedom translates into the lack of equality and opportunity and self-expression, ingredients so necessary for a life that gives rise to true success.
Yet, while most Americans gladly champion freedom on a broad, governmental plane, a troubling pattern often persists in the private lives of our citizenry. Repeatedly in my counseling office I hear of relationships that fall apart because of individuals who cannot or will not comprehend how necessary freedom is to emotional stability and personal growth. For instance, many adults can recall childhood memories of family life dominated by an overbearing, critical parent. Likewise, spouses report feeling stymied by a partner’s insistence upon fitting a preordained mold, with no room for individual uniqueness. Organization members often sense there is little permission to think outside the box, meaning they had better adhere to a prescribed mentality lest they face censure. Church members frequently feel they must be guarded or calculated in their self-disclosures because they have learned that deviations from the church’s ideals will be met with rejection.
Freedom is a wonderful topic to support when it is kept on an abstract, theoretical level, but it can be scary for many who have assumed that its application is too risky in personal relationships. These people will complain that some individuals are too immature to handle freedom responsibly. They then insist that they must maintain strict standards of right and wrong to protect against unbridled license. Sure enough, they correctly recognize that free choices are best exercised when balanced by a system of consequences and discipline. Unfortunately, they can allow the pendulum to swing so far into the direction of preserving order that they dismiss the legitimacy of freedom altogether.
Let’s affirm that it is possible to live orderly lives while still upholding the fundamentals of personal freedoms. Most of us would agree that there is a need for order as outlined by biblical instructions or our societal code of laws or the Robert’s Rules of Order or some other common sense set of guidelines for respectful living. Let’s also allow for plenty of latitude in personal freedoms even as we keep order.
Consider a few examples of how freedom can be maintained in our private lives:
- When a spouse or family member expresses a perspective or feeling separate from yours, listen. Don’t immediately invalidate.
- Allow your children to give input regarding the ways structure will become a part of their daily routine.
- When you learn of a friend’s moral failure, be open-minded enough to explore the hurt or confusion associated with that failure. Bypass the temptation to judge.
- As you are working on a project with another person, allow that individual to approach the task in his or her own manner. Don’t micromanage.
- When you are in the midst of a conflict, rather than attempting to gain the upper hand over the other person, make it your task to learn why that person is upset.
- Let go of the assumption that life is supposed to fit a specified mold. Be flexible enough to allow for variety.
- Be extremely judicious in the use of criticism…it tends to shut people down. Instead, make encouragement a high priority.
- Find ways to say “yes” as often as possible.
- When confrontation is necessary, drop coercion from your tone of voice. Say what needs to be said, then allow the other person the room to decide how to proceed from there.
- As you discipline children, refrain from speaking in edicts. Instead, calmly discuss choices and consequences. Also, make sure your emphasis is on things that really matter, not nit-picky issues.
- Drop duty as a motivation. Do what you do because it makes sense, not because it is a mandate. Likewise, refrain from forcing behavior upon others through guilt induction.
- Laugh. Look for reasons to smile. Play. Enjoy activities that are not a part of your everyday routine. Wear something red.
- Let’s make sure that freedom is not just an idea that applies to people “out there.” If we only think of freedom as an abstract idea that has no real relevance to our personal lives, we will predictably fall into a pattern of life defined by control. As enough individuals reject freedom in their personal lives, our entire society will be adversely affected.
Freedom, balanced by a respect for dignity, is not just a good idea. It is a cornerstone of the healthy life.