Escape from Freedom

by J.D. Roth

“We cannot solve life’s problems except by solving them.” — M. Scott Peck

One reason I enjoy dating Kim is that although superficially we’re unalike, and although we’ve had vastly different life experiences, deep down we have similar values and life philosophies. This means we have some interesting conversations about the way the world works, and we each bring a different perspective to the discussion.

Last weekend, the topic turned to the nature of personal responsibility. Both of us believe strongly that each person is responsible for her own happiness, that each person is responsible for his own success. Yes, life deals better hands to some people than to others. Plus, some people seem to be luckier than other people. Ultimately, however, you are responsible for improving your own state in life. You cannot expect anyone else to better it for you.

Note: This belief is built into my tenets of personal finance. When I say “nobody cares more about your money than you do“, this is exactly what I mean. Yes, take advice from people. Yes, take advantage of the resources available to you. But ultimately, you are the one who responsible for building and growing your nest egg.

This discussion was reinforced on Monday as I continued to read through M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled. The entire first section of The Road Less Traveled is about personal responsibility, and there’s a great chapter on what Peck calls “the escape from freedom”. Here’s an excerpt (emphasis mine):

…Almost all of us from time to time seek to avoid — in ways that can be quite subtle — the pain of assuming responsibility for our own problems…

The difficulty we have in accepting responsibility for our behavior lies in the desire to avoid the pain of the consequences of that behavior…Whenever we seek to avoid the responsibility for our own behavior, we do so by attempting to give that responsibility to some other individual or organization or entity. But this means we then give away our power to that entity, be it “fate” or “society” or the government or the corporation or our boss. It is for this reason that Erich Fromm so aptly title his study of Nazism and authoritarianism Escape from Freedom. In attempting to avoid the pain of responsibility, millions and even billions daily attempt to escape from freedom.

As children, by virtue of our real and extensive dependency, our parents have real and extensive power over us. They are, in fact, largely responsible for our well-being, and we are, in fact, largely at their mercy. When parents are oppressive, as so often they are, we as children are largely powerless to do anything about it; our choices are limited. But as adults, when we are physically healthy, our choices are almost unlimited. That does not mean they are not painful. Frequently our choices lie between the lesser of two evils, but it is still within our power to make these choices.

…There are indeed oppressive forces at work within the world. We have, however, the freedom to choose every step of the way the manner in which we are going to respond to and deal with these forces.

…One of the roots of this “sense of impotence” in the majority of [people] is some desire to partially or totally escape the pain of freedom, and, therefore, some failure, partial or total, to accept responsibility for their problems and their lives. They feel impotent because they have, in fact, given their power away. Sooner or later…they must learn that the entirety of one’s adult life is a series of personal choices, decisions. If they can accept this totally, then they become free people. To the extent that they do not accept this they will forever feel themselves victims.

Again, I’m reminded of Harry Browne’s How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World. That entire book is about letting go of the idea that other people control our destiny, that we’re handcuffed to our past decisions. Browne, like Peck, argues that we’re responsible for our own freedom, our own happiness. But too many of us say “I can’t because…”

The reality is not that we can’t, but that we choose not to. It’s a subtle shift in framing things, but it’s an important one.

Updated: 08 November 2012

Do what's right. Do your best. Accept the outcome.
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