The Tyranny of Liberty

By | October 28, 2011

One of the core values of our country is freedom. Freedom is good, but I believe it is also often confused and misunderstood. The prevailing view seems to be that what will make us happy is having the freedom to choose to have or do whatever we want. However there is a downside to choice. Having the freedom to choose among nearly infinite options doesn’t bring about the utopia which it seems to be sold as having.

Have you ever gone to the store to buy chips, pop, something for a headache, toothpaste, shampoo, etc., only to be faced with dozen of different options to choose from? You may already know which option you want, but at some point, you had to decide for the first time. What are the differences between all of the different options? Sometimes it can be as small as a different shape of pill, a different color, or a different flavor. Perhaps there are different ingredients. Maybe the quality varies, or there is a different quantity, or it’s just a different brand, or the price is different. How do you decide? Which choice is best for you? I don’t know about you, but I can sometimes spend five minutes or more trying to make a decision about a single item. Or have you ever tried ordering pizza with a group of people? I rest my case.

I admit, in the grand scheme of things, what I just mentioned isn’t a big deal and not worth spending much time complaining about. But it is just a small example of a bigger problem. Have you ever agonized over which job to take, where to move, which college to go to, what to major in, whether or not to go to college at all, which church to go to, what to believe in, whether to date this person or not, whether or not to get married, whether or not to have kids now, or simply when to do any of the above?

We live in a culture of choice. Whereas we used to value similarity, now we value difference. It used to be that there were primarily only a few choices for entertainment, such as movies and music. Now, you may be a fan of mockumentaries, while your friend wants to watch anime. Or you may prefer to dance to dub-step, while another friend wants to swing, while another friend wants to go to a metal show. Now I’m thankful for the options we have, especially because I like many of the less popular ones. But sometime our choices divide and separate us.

Relationships are one good area to demonstrate the consequences of choice. Now days it seem almost anything is at least partially culturally acceptable. Do you want to date one person, more than one person, someone of the same sex, someone already in a relationship? Is going out together a date or not? What activity is appropriate for a first date? Can a girl ask a guy out? Is a guy supposed to be traditionally chivalrous (opening doors, etc)? Should you wait to have sex until you’re married, or just until you find someone you really love, or is it just a general recreational activity that isn’t that big of a deal? Should you live with someone before you’re married? Is marriage really necessary or that important anymore?

It used to be that there were culturally acceptable answers to most of these questions. The thing is, in our culture, there are no answers to these questions! Relationships are whatever you want them to be, whatever you make them to be. This reduces the shunning of those who make less conventional choices. Yet I’m guessing many people have made choices they regret because they weren’t fully informed about the potential consequences of their decisions.

Now most people have their own answers the above questions. And I suspect that most people believe that they’re right, and beyond that, that many or most people approach relationships in the same way. Unfortunately, with the plethora of options, it seems more likely that most people will approach relationships different than you do. So we’ve added yet another layer of complexity to an already challenging situation. Now not only do you have to try and find someone available whom you get along with, find attractive, and share some of the same basic beliefs, but you also have to find someone who has some of the same ideas about relationships, or at least find a way to navigate through the differences. In a way, it seems to be another area which divides and separates us.

So is all this freedom making us happier? Is the freedom to choose to follow one’s own will really freedom? Why aren’t Americans happier? Why aren’t they among the happiest people in the world? Why are there such high rates of depression, suicide, and abuse? I believe that the majority of things which upset us our a result of our own making (as a culture more so than individually). We have created our own hell. Our country’s gods are freedom and security, but these are myths. Freedom is good, but the freedom we have isn’t true freedom. Security is good, but we’re never going to be completely safe. If we put our hope in these things, these things will fail (and have failed) us. They can’t by themselves bring us peace, happiness, and contentment.

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