The Freedom to Choose the Unnecessary

Vacation days with no plans are a perfect opportunity to think about freedom. I have no plans, so I can do anything.

Anything I want. Within realistic limits, obviously.

But here is a question: Out of all the potential things I might want to do, are all choices equally free?

My answer is that they are not. And what I am only slowly beginning to discover and understand is that every time I do what I want to do, I may be fooling myself and I may think of myself as free when I am really not free.

Does that sound weird? Maybe it does.

But let’s start at the beginning: It’s my free day and I wake up.

Immediately I am confronted with choices. Should I get up or should I stay in bed? Should I read something on my phone or should I quietly observe my own thoughts?

I decide to get up and take a shower. I don’t really question whether I should do that. Taking a shower feels good and makes me feel alive and awake. Also, I do it every day. Why wouldn’t I take a shower?

After picking out and putting on clothes, I stare out the window to wait and see if I can come up with any ideas on how to best spend the day.

Am I hungry? Should I eat something? Do I want a coffee? Food and coffee! Need and desire! (Or, for some people, need and need.)

If I choose to eat and have a coffee, would that be a free choice? If I expect the choice to make me feel better, why wouldn’t I do it? Shouldn’t I do what I need to do to be healthy and feel good? And if I want to do something and I am able to do it, isn’t that freedom?

Is freedom the combination of will and ability?

How about I test that idea by imagining a drastically different situation where I am faced with a choice of life and death: either I eat or I will with certainty die within minutes.

Would my choice to eat still be free in that situation? Obviously in that situation my choices are very limited. You might still say that I can technically do what I want, but I would find it weird to think of that choice as ‘free.’

It appears that choosing to eat when I want to eat is not necessarily a free choice. It somehow depends on the conditions that compel me to make the choice. (Replace “eating” with “taking meth” and that conclusion might be even more obvious.)

Let’s look at a different example that’s extreme in the opposite direction.

Imagine going for a walk in a park. It is a beautiful day, not too cold, not too warm. You are healthy and in a good mood. You are not hungry, not thirsty, not tired, not lonely. You are walking down a path until you come to a fork. Should you go left or should you go right?

Hmm…

Both directions seem equally acceptable. There is no wrong choice. You spend a few seconds thinking about which way to go. Right? Left? Left? Right? You are stumped. How can this be so difficult?

That state of feeling like you could do anything and there is nothing you need to do, I call “freedom.”

You could do anything, because there is nothing you need to do and because you have the ability to do anything you want.

Freedom is unconstrained choosing. In other words, it is the ability to choose the unnecessary.

If that’s what freedom is, is it even desirable?

Do I want to be in a state of not only being free to do what I want, but also being free from the need to choose?

One way to look at freedom is to see it as an essential difference between being alive and being dead:

In death, there is nothing I need to do, but there is also nothing I can do.

In life, I can only know what I am able to do if there is nothing I need to do.

Do I want to know my potential? Or am I satisfied to live until eventually I am served an answer in form of the life I have lived?

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