By Troy Headrick
As some of you might know, I am the director of a writing center at Palo Alto College in San Antonio, Texas. Just yesterday, a bright, young woman came into our facility and one of our best tutors helped her with a piece of writing she’d been working on.
The tutoring session ended and this tutee—I won’t reveal her name or other personal information as a way of safeguarding her privacy—started opening up about her life. She began telling our tutor that she lived in a small town outside of San Antonio and was required to pay higher tuition than normal because she found herself “out of district.” She also told us she resided with a mother who was financially strapped and therefore unable to help her with her school costs. Basically, if she couldn’t find a way to make her education more affordable, she would likely have to drop out.
After hearing all this, I inserted myself into the conversation and we began to brainstorm with her about actions she might take to solve her difficult problem. Basically, we were prodding her to think critically and creativity. She liked a lot of what we had to say and left our center feeling like she was going to begin thinking more outside the box about her situation.
As soon as she took off, I realized that what we’d really been talking about is freedom, a term that many Americans like to throw around a lot. For example, many will claim that America is the freest country in the history of world. Making such broad declarations has always bothered me. Freedom, it seems, needs to be looked at in a more nuanced way lest we resort to mouthing platitudes about it.
In the young woman’s case, she was seeking freedom to further her education, but to be free in this way, she’d need to be able to free herself from a number of constraints, mostly financial in nature.
Thus, when we think about being free (or the nature of freedom), we need to realize that there are different types: freedom to and freedom from, and that there are huge differences between these two conceptualizations.
For example, when we say that we want to be free to find ourselves, we are really talking about something aspirational. However, freedom from is all about overcoming limitations, those impediments that would keep us from easily pursuing our dreams. We can’t easily be free to find ourselves if we can’t be free from constraints that would prevent us from doing self-reflection and self-discovery. To use another illustration, if you dream of becoming a sculptor, you might have trouble achieving the sort of freedom that would allow you to develop your artistic skills if your family thinks pursuing art is a waste of time. You’d need to free yourself from the kinds of pressures your loved ones might place on you—they could argue that you need to focus on doing something “more practical”—before you could be free enough to fully invest your energy in becoming a sculptor.
I think it has great value to take this freedom-to-versus-freedom-from framework and apply it to our lives. What would you like to be free to do and what do you need to free yourself from to achieve your goals?
For instance, if you’d like to be free to travel more, what do you need to free yourself from to travel? Once you can answer these questions, it’s easier to begin putting together a plan that would help you live the life you’ve always dreamed of.
What do you think about my thoughts on freedom? How do they relate to your situation (if at all)? Do you have a personal testimonial you’d like to share related to the arguments I’m making in this piece?
I can’t wait to read your responses!
Troy Headrick’s personal blog can be found here.