In 1958, Isiah Berlin wrote an Essay: Two Concepts of Liberty which helped shaped our current day thought about positive freedom and negative freedom.
Positive liberty or freedom is the possession of the capacity to act upon one's free will or more to my liking: freedom from internal constraints.
Negative liberty or freedom is defined by freedom from external restraint on one's actions.
All beings are restrained by both concepts...always and will forever be restrained. However, it is the concept of positive freedom or liberty that I think most people in privileged society struggle with the most.
Let’s take them each in turn:
I have a great deal of freedom from external restraint:
I am rule follower (most of the time) so my ability to go where I want, when I want is not really controlled all that much by others. One could even say that I am able, given the appropriate resources, to go wherever I want, almost whenever I want. There is no one telling me I can’t. I am not in the military, jail, I don’t live under tyranny (well, that is debatable). I am pretty free from the kind of external restraint that most of the world dreams of...I am blessed to be sure.
I could go into all the ways that my life is externally restrained by finances, work commitments, child care routines, family and social obligations but this would result in a long list of things that you have too, so I won't repeat them here. I know you get it.
The fact that I live in a beautiful place with not a lot of people telling me in fundamental ways (if I can live, where I can live, how I can treat my body, where I can work, what I can do and how I choose to live my life). There are literally millions of people that would trade places with me right now. I do realize that they would be getting a great deal and I would be getting the shaft.
So I preface all of what I am about to say with a profound and grateful heart for all the I have been given, worked for and was just fucking lucky enough to be born into. Lest you think that I am just another entitled asshole who only ponders the concept of freedom because I have the luxury.
Despite all of the above, all of the external liberty, my life has been locked down on the positive liberty front. Which really means that my head and I do not get along well and I do not enjoy a great deal of freedom (until more recently) from my never ending dialogue with myself. In a word, I have had a lifetime battle with internal restraints and well, the lack of internal restraint. My internal world a battleground.
If you look at me from the outside, you might reach a different conclusion...I have a good education which has landed me a lucrative and prestigious job. But if I told you the story of what happened inside my head to get me where I am today...you would be fucking amazed that I ever made it across the street let alone to where I am right now! Fuck, I mean seriously, not even kidding.
I was born with a head that was totally against me. Always picking apart everything I did, said, wore...it was fucking terrible. I believed and did everything my head told me to do. But my head was not my ally...in fact, it was a lot like a war zone for most of my life. I had a lot of internal restraint followed by a complete letting go of the reigns which allowed for there to not be much internal restraint at all. Ironically, the less internal restraint I exercised...the more likely it appeared that I would get to experience some pretty bad fucking external restraint in the form of police, judges and wardens. (I was not a hardened criminal - I just had a serious drinking and driving problem that was about to cause a whole bunch of external restraint to come my way - except something happened and my internal lever that was broken on the whole drinking thing suddenly and magically started to work and I got some much needed internal restraint, which resulted, in my case, to avoiding the particular external retraint that comes for those soddened with booze: jails, institutions and death).
Now, I do not believe that the almighty “I” was responsible for the sudden about face. No, I was not that powerful. However, a few epiphanies and my internal thought structure became more pliable and workable than it was before.
Suddenly, my lack of internal restraint was met with a new freedom from internal restraint - I did not have to drink anymore. I did not have to have a drink even when my head told me it was a great idea and nothing bad would happen...and this was not just a one time thing. I was able to subvert these thoughts over and over and over again.
It was my first real taste of positive freedom and I wanted more. As my first sponsor put it so eloquently:
"If you are willing to give up drinking and drugging - all doors are open to you. However, if you continue to drink and/or drug - eventually - sometimes quickly and sometimes slowly - everyone of those possible doors will slam in your face.”
I don’t know why I believed her. I believed no one. But her, for whatever reason, I just decided to believe. And, you know what, she was totally fucking right.
So I will say that my experience of positive freedom came at the tail end of a mixture of crazy lack of internal restraint coupled with a budding growth of a new kind of internal restraint.
Let me explain...
At almost 50, I have now been sober 50% of my life so it is easy to mark the first half versus the second half. I like that. I like it when time comports with my need to analogize.
Before sobriety, my life was completely controlled by my thoughts, obsessive thoughts - mostly about me but also about you - what you thought of me, did you like me, why you didn’t like me...etc. I am not exaggerating. Pretty much every single thought revolved around me and if I thought about you at all it was not about my deep seated concern for your well being - I thought about how to make you do something I wanted you to do or to stop doing something I didn't like. People really kind of existed for me in this great play that was occurring where I was the director and you all were cast as extras in my grand rendition of Defending My Life.
If you have never tried to orchestrate the universe or your little corner of it anyway, give it a whirl sometime. It was exhausting and oh so incredibly painful. So much so that it required that I completely lost control so that I could just keep the thing (my life) going. So I would go on benders. Ever increasingly long benders. I would spend all of this time working my ass off so that I could “check out” later and pretty much undo all that I had worked so hard for for weeks. A great building and unraveling repeatedly.
It was a pattern that I could not break. I was so incased in this pattern, that I couldn’t even see that it was a pattern. I just kept doing the same thing and completely believed that it would change. Seriously believed that it would change. It never did.
Now this process required an incredible amount of internal restraint. My mind was rigid and inflexible. It was constantly forcing me to do the same thing over and over and over again. I got no freedom. The internal restraint begged and in fact demanded release and I was only along for the ride.
24 years later I still have that rigid and inflexible mind. It is way more malleable than before but I still struggle. I am not my mind’s obedient servant anymore but I am still mostly imprisoned with my own thoughts.
I am pretty sure that the remainder of my life will be spent working on achieving more positive freedom. I want to be able to get out of my own way more often. I allow so much time and effort to be spent deciding things that do not really need decisions by me and so much effort thinking about things that really do not require so much thought.
There seems to be some kind of need for balance: like the more freedom I have from negative freedom (financial security, job security, being single) the more time my head seems to spend arguing with itself about my life. I am happier and freer than I have ever been on both fronts but I still feel like I have a lot of work to do to be free of the me that I don’t like all that much. Perhaps the best course for really achieving positive freedom is to just accept myself as I am and stop wishing for things (me) to be different. To stop at this particular vantage point in my life and say:
You know what, I have a good life that is rich and full and free from addiction, illness and poverty. No matter what else I think or do, that is some pretty awesome shit. Life is pretty amazing and if I keep doing what I am doing, I am sure to achieve more freedom from myself. I can work with this broken and fallible mind and create a space for myself that supports my immersion as my best self. I can do that every minute of the rest of my life and that is the best use of this life. If I keep doing that, I am sure to enjoy all the freedom (negative or positive) that I have worked for, been given and, best of all, enjoy. May we all work with our demons and remember to enjoy this crazy, fucked up journey away from self and toward a deeper, richer and more meaningful life. It is ours to choose.