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Self-Knowledge • Growth & Maturity

A Simple Question to Set You Free

If we step back from the things that make us most unhappy and ask ourselves why we are enduring them, we may reply that  – whatever our levels of discomfort – we just have no choice but to suffer. We tell ourselves that certain things are both unfortunate and yet simply have to be. For example, we have to stay with a partner even though we are unfulfilled; we have to remain in a job, even though the people in charge are belittling us; we have to fail at everything we do no matter how hard we strive; there is no option but to passively hate the way we look or the place we live.

Yet in far more cases than we might presume, liberation awaits us if we have the courage to ask a deceptively simple yet pointed and mind-expanding question: do our supposed lack of choices carry any echoes, or repeat any patterns of assumed necessity, that we once faced in childhood? Are there any links between the particular ways we are fixedly unhappy now and the reasons we were unhappy then?

Painting by Modigliani of a young boy sitting on a chair, cheek resting on his hand.
Amedeo Modigliani, The Boy, 1919

Children lead notoriously constrained lives; they have to inhabit some very narrow spaces indeed. They face all kinds of agonising binary choices. They must obey a cruel caregiver or get the cold shoulder. They must follow the rules at school or suffer ignominy. They have to avoid the envy of an older sibling or get ridiculed. They have to tend to the depression of beloved caregiver or feel oppressively guilty.

It is bad enough to suffer such constrictions in our young years. But an equal or greater pity is when – without even noticing what we are doing – we take these constrictions out into our adult lives; when we unconsciously impose curbs on our choices and set limits to our satisfactions where there are no longer any binding reasons for us to do so; when we continue to live in a narrow room even though the door is wide open. 

We deserve to make a list of our present frustrations and griefs and ask ourselves whether we are not being unknowingly dutiful to certain rules that our deep minds have failed to realise no longer apply. Once we consider the matter afresh, perhaps there is no longer any need to be timid in order to appease the jealousy of a caregiver who died a decade ago; perhaps we don’t have to associate love with pain again and again, now that we are free to choose partners who could be uncomplicatedly kind. Maybe we don’t need to keep being afraid of failure given that the adults we have to deal with won’t be able to scare and upset us the way that certain people formerly did in childhood.

We humans can be loyal to a fault and too lightly extend our allegiances and our piety to situations that didn’t ever deserve them. We honour laws that we cannot even see ourselves obeying. Without noticing the harm we are doing to our interests, we may be continuing to sidestep – and failing to make use of – the true and primordial freedom of adulthood: the freedom to do things differently.

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