Freedom From What?

American Flag

We talk about being free in the US, but are we really free?  Do you feel free?  Do you see freedom exhibited among our most powerful and privileged?  Do you think our ultra-partisan legislators are free?  Do you think our addicted and self-indulgent sports heroes are free? When a Gallup poll tells us that almost 50% of people in the US are not engaged in their jobs, are we free? 

As we approach July 4 when Americans celebrate our nation’s independence, perhaps we should pause and consider how we limit our own individual and collective freedom.  We live in a nation with extraordinary wealth and opportunity, yet we make “choices that limit our choices” every day.  It is easy to point the finger elsewhere and blame others for enslaving us, but that only exaggerates our dissatisfaction. It makes us feel even more helpless and hopeless—victims of our own expectations. 

We have a choice. We can engage with each other and with our environments in ways that generate creative options for action. We can choose to focus on possibility and to adapt to the world as it is, rather than whining about the way we wish it could be.  We can stand in inquiry and create a world that is full of hope and energy.  How? We can engage in Adaptive Action and follow three very simple rules. 

Adaptive Action is a three-question practice that puts you in control, even in the most uncertain situations.  What?  helps you notice what is happening in the world around you, so you see openings you might have missed.   So what?  breaks through habits and assumptions so you can explore opportunities you never would have imagined.   Now what?  moves you out of helplessness and into action. As you act, the patterns around you shift, and you begin your freeing cycle of inquiry again.  What? So what? Now what?

Even the best Adaptive Action can derail when judgment, defensiveness, or conflict cloud perceptions.  If my answer to  What?  focuses on the worst in others, defending myself, or reinforcing conflict, then Adaptive Action merely strengthens patterns that enslave me. To avoid these traps, I can follow three very simple rules.

Rule 1: Turn judgment into curiosity. Judgment, even when it is true, blocks choice.  It locks me into anger or bias. At the same time, it limits the amount of freedom I am willing to give to the other. When I assume my co-worker is competing with me, that he isn’t working as hard as I am, that he wants my job, I’m stuck in a negative world of my own creation.  If, on the other hand, I am curious about his motivations and ask about his expectations, then I open my choices and his to explore opportunities for shared understanding or action.  As a boss, curiosity creates employee engagement.  As a parent it opens honest affection. As a citizen it supports civil discourse. As a world neighbor it dissolves xenophobia. Curiosity breeds freedom.

Rule 2: Turn defensiveness into self-reflection. Roosevelt told us that the “only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Fear leads me to retreat, dig in, avoid engagement, and focus on building or maintaining boundaries to defend myself.  Those boundaries hold me hostage because they restrain the very freedom they were designed to create. Everything I invest to defend myself from economic, social, personal, political, physical threats builds walls that constrain my choices over time.  While I need to be safe, I also can explore other, more freeing ways to meet basic needs.  I practice ultimate freedom when I challenge myself.  I expand my horizons when I reflect on my own capacity to grow in new ways and to see and act differently. Self-reflection breeds freedom.

Rule 3: Turn conflict into shared inquiry. When I choose conflict—especially conflict that is prolonged and profound—I choose slavery.  Whatever I invest in anger and offensive action, I am stealing from positive passion and possibility. Even when my enemy is not immediately willing to share in inquiry, I can increase my own freedom by opening opportunities for dialogue. I ask myself, “What is a question that we can pursue together? So what options for action might serve us both? Now what path will lead us forward together?” Shared inquiry frees us from ties of history and frustration. Shared inquiry breeds freedom.

You may call me Pollyanna and retreat to the familiar safety of your self-designed constraints.  There’s nothing my Adaptive Action can do about that.  But this week, as you are thankful for the freedom granted by our forefathers decades ago, I invite you to think about the freedom you can create every day for yourself and others. Can Adaptive Action, curiosity, self-reflection, and shared inquiry help us discover a path toward freedom that does not depend on the choices of others? Are you willing to give it a try?

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