AUGUST 2, 2021
“Ask Ellie” is LARB’s new advice column, drawing wisdom from the great myths and stories to navigate the terrible, glorious weirdness and difficulty of modern life. Please submit your dilemmas, midnight anxieties, fear, loathing, and confusion to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m thinking about freedom a lot, not because “Independence Day” just blew up the sky or because 40 is coming for me this December. It seems that 39 years’ worth of chain links — sure, many forged by my own choices and immaturities — have one by one been cut, and now I’m staring into a big, dark freedom to be, to do basically whatever pleases me. And I’m frozen.
In the last few years, I have extricated myself from a marriage and from work that didn’t work for me. Over a longer period, I’ve been healing childhood trauma that kept me imprisoned in myself, unable to make friends or attach healthily to people. Now, I finally have a big, vibrant social circle and work opportunities that feel like a wide-open horizon.
But all I can think of is Rousseau: “Man is born free, yet he is everywhere in chains.”
Ellie, how do I learn to be free? Or remember to be? I see women twirling in wheatfields on Instagram. On dating apps, I see men on the open road in jeeps with cheetahs. I see people in line voting for the first time, in line for their first driver’s test, and I think, “Ah, here are a bunch of ways to embody freedom!” But I don’t want to do any of those things. I want to sit still and that be enough. But then I’m afraid I’m squandering my freedom or inventing a new chain out of familiarity. Am I middle-fingering the work of so many people who have helped provide this freedom? There are so many options for how to live free, can my first step be to not take one yet?
Born Free but Frozen
Dear Born Free but Frozen,
I’ve written several versions of this letter. The trouble is, the answer to your question is so obvious, and yet like all the obvious things we know are good for us, not necessarily easy to enact. Yes, of course — you can and should take a deep, rich pause. Like all of humanity right now, you’re sitting at a threshold, and if you rush in and fill the open space ahead with the first things that come to mind, you’ll only recreate the structures of the life you’re trying to leave behind. Now’s a time to stop and reflect.
But I think you already know that. You’re smart enough to have seen your own snares and struggled loose, and all before you turn 40. That’s a whole lifetime of work, for a lot of people — more than a lifetime, for others — and here you are having done it with maybe half a life to spare.
You’re good at this. You have a strong inner compass, and it’s giving you a very clear message. So why do you need my permission to follow it? And why are you looking to social media to tell you how to live?
Clearly, you’ve done a lot of inner work, but it sounds as though you still don’t really trust your own authority. Did your early attachment problems predispose you to deny your own needs, your soul’s promptings, in order to live up to the idea of yourself that you imagine exists in other people’s heads, so that you won’t alienate or disappoint them? Is that how you ended up in a marriage and work that didn’t work for you? Pay attention to this impulse to ask permission, to defer to others and even to social media. It might turn out to be a map of the pitfalls you’ll want to avoid in the life to come.
But there’s something broader going on here, too. I think the frozenness you’re feeling is almost inevitable and certainly widespread in a particular kind of online, emotionally literate, socially conscious person whose highest goals are both to live fully into their own being and to make a positive impact in the world. In the competing visions of freedom you describe, I hear you struggling to balance civic duty with an open-road, ’merica!-flavored liberty. Humans have never been able to see so readily all the wrongs in the world that need our attention (nor has there ever been so much wrong in the world that’s entirely of our own making). But how are we receiving that information? Increasingly, via platforms that also feed us an unending curriculum of personal work for healing trauma, moving past our own toxic pasts, awakening, and on and on, while stoking our sense that everyone else is living far more interesting lives than us — that we are, somehow, living all wrong. And of course, those platforms themselves are corporate weapons designed to steal our attention and therefore our time and freedom of thought.
What even is a good life today, and how the hell is anyone supposed to live one amid all this noise? In your case, it sounds as though your focus has necessarily been pulled tight on your own struggles for many years, and now you’re looking up at this mess, trying to find the way forward but instead feeling bewildered and frozen. No wonder!
If I were to advise you to simply heed your inner prompting to stay still, to do nothing, it’s very possible that that stillness would feel like an extended paralysis — like being stuck in the crossfire of these conflicting claims on your time and energy, rather than the kind of deep, reflective pause that will allow you to welcome wisdom bigger than yourself and live into the most expansive future possible.
So how can you access that deep, reflective space? First things first: social media is not your friend as you navigate this threshold — especially for a person like you, who has strong instincts but trouble trusting them. Make a commitment to yourself to cut that noise, at least in this pivotal moment of your life, when there’s so much to play for. Remind yourself every day that those platforms that feel like a harmless distraction are in fact cynical ploys to steal your time and attention, and with them your ability to hear and trust your own guidance and shape the life that’s right for you alone. If you want some help sticking to this, you could do far worse than read Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing.
Even after you’ve switched off the devices, there’s the question of how to tap into the richest version of nothingness. Luckily, you’re far from alone in this pursuit — the quest for this luminous nothingness has been at the center of millennia of spiritual practice. Mystics of various traditions are in surprising agreement that there is an empty, infinite field of absolute potential and unity out of which all known things emerge — and that accessing this field is the way to truly live into your own divinity. For Taoists it’s the field of non-being that gives birth to the Tao, the way. The Christian mystic Meister Eckhart called it Godhead. And Hindus and Buddhists conceive of versions of it in moksha and nirvana, respectively.
So my next piece of advice to you is to achieve nirvana. Good luck! I’m kidding. You wouldn’t know it from much of the New Age rhetoric around at the moment, but of course accessing this kind of elevated consciousness (let alone living in it) is a life’s work and takes extreme dedication. Unless you feel compelled to join a monastic order, it might not be a realistic goal.
All the same, I’d recommend not just doing nothing but populating that nothing with regular practices for getting out of your tight, thinking brain and settling into an expanded awareness. You’ve heard all this before, of course: meditate; spend time outside; pray, if that’s your thing. The things we all know we should be doing anyway, and yet. Well, at the risk of activating your desire to be obedient, enough of the and yet! If you want to navigate this threshold moment and end up with a life bigger and richer than you ever imagined, now’s the time to really commit to one or more of these practices. I’d also recommend committing to a particular discipline within whichever practice you choose. It’s easy these days to pick and mix spiritual curricula, but doing that is going to keep you in the shallows. Pick some practices that particularly speak to you and stick with them, even and especially after they get boring or difficult. That’s a sign that you’re meeting your edge, which is the best way to get free of your own limitations.
Clearly, I’m a riot at parties. Even I am impressed by how unfun I’ve managed to make “freedom” sound here. Get rid of your shiny devices! Push through the pain of spiritual practice! Stick needles in your eyeballs and wear a hair shirt! None of it sounds much like twirling in a field of wheat (though that’s not all it’s cracked up to be — just ask Theresa May), or like the adolescent-boy, freedom-from-all-obligation-to-others vision of freedom that’s so prevalent in certain parts of America. I want to suggest that that’s because “how can I be free?” is the wrong question for your current life stage (and moreover for the horrifying pass at which humanity now finds itself), and “man is born free” is the wrong starting point. Your pal Rousseau was terrific at having entertaining ideas, but let’s not forget that he pulled most of them directly out of his ass. In his conception, man (never mind about woman, of course) was most free when roaming the forest, hunting; it’s civilization that’s chained him. But how free is any hunter-gatherer, really? If nothing else, they’re subject to their own hunger and to the life-or-death need for tribal acceptance, since rejection would mean no protection against predators or the elements, and no share in group catches.
Man isn’t born free; man is born hungry and dependent. Or to put it another way: he is born connected.
As you sit at your threshold — not frozen but relishing a deep, nourishing stillness — I would encourage you to ask yourself not “how can I be free?” but, “how can I live connected in the most expansive, inspiring, just, nourishing, and pleasurable way?”
Yes: pleasurable. That’s crucial. There’s a wind-in-the-hair, hello-sunshine quality to some of the versions of freedom you describe that makes me wonder if you’re not just starving to drink up a summer’s day or savor a perfectly ripe pear — and that has nothing to do with whether you have access to a Jeep. My strictness about your iPhone might make me seem like a party pooper, but as much as anything it’s a bid for you to reclaim the pleasure of your own senses, which is your birthright and a map to your place in the world. Trouble is, it’s very hard to tune into the subtle pleasures of feeling, tasting, smelling, and listening to the living world around you if your nervous system is constantly being hijacked by exploitative dopamine rushes, or if you’re accustomed not to trust your own needs. Which is all the more reason to get quiet, get still, and say yes to what arises.
Ellie Robins is a writer published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The TLS, The Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere, and the translator of Alan Pauls’s novel A History of Money(2015). You can follow her on Twitter @ellie_robins and subscribe to her newsletter at tinyletter.com/here.