Some of the reason why adult life can be greyer and more miserable than it should be is that our earliest years are generally made up of a prolonged and highly formative encounter with the idea of obedience. Throughout childhood, there is little doubt that the path to maturity must involve doing a litany of substantially unpleasant things demanded of us by figures of authority whom we cannot question. No one asks if we would be particularly interested in learning about the angles of triangles or what a volt really is, but we obey in any case. We give over our days and much of our evenings and weekends to complying with an agenda elaborated for us by people whose concern with our happiness is at best highly abstract. We put on our blue or grey jumper and sit at a desk and study the plotline of Macbeth or the chemical properties of helium – and trust that our boredom and distaste must be substantially wrong.
We then become inclined to extend this attitude into our dealings with the wider world. We assume that what we particularly want should never be the important factor. We opt for a career on the basis that – to others – it looks like the right thing to subscribe to. At parties we’ll be able to answer the question what do you do? in a way that – by consensus – is unobjectionable or somewhat impressive. At the same time, we learn to see freedom as both appealing and, in a way, absurd. We’ll be free, we feel, when we don’t have anything else to fill our time with: on Saturday mornings or when we’re retired.
In the process, we become highly adept at rationalising our frustrations. We tell ourselves that we have no option. We have to stick with a job that we resent or a marriage that has grown stale because (we say) we need the money or our friends would be disappointed or it’s the kind of thing everyone like us has to do. We become geniuses at elaborating excuses that make our unhappiness look necessary and sane.
The mid-twentieth century British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott encountered many patients – often high-performing and prestigious ones – who were in acute distress because they were, as he put it, ‘too good.’ They had never felt the inner freedom and security to say no, largely because their earliest caregivers would have viewed the expression of their authentic feelings as a threatening insurrection they had to quash. Winnicott proposed that health could only come about from counteracting this tendency to subordinate too quickly – and too trustingly – to the preferences of others, including people who might claim to care a lot about us. Being ‘bad’ in a salutary way in Winnicott’s vision wouldn’t have to mean breaking the law or becoming aggressive; it would mean finding the inner freedom to do things others might find disconcerting on the basis that we, our authentic selves, have a sincere wish to explore them. It would be founded on a very profound view that others can never ultimately be the best custodians of our lives, for their instincts about what’s acceptable haven’t been formed on the basis of a deep knowledge of our unique needs.
We tend to fantasise about freedom in terms of not having to work or of being able to take off on long trips. But if we dig into its core, freedom really means no longer being beholden to the expectations of others. We may, quite freely, work very hard or stay at home during the holidays. The decisive factor is our willingness to disappoint, to upset or to disconcert others in doing so. We don’t need to relish this – we may by nature be inclined to get on well with as many people as possible. But we can live with the idea that our central choices might not meet with general approval. At the party, we can risk someone not being at all impressed by what we do, or regarding our living arrangements as unorthodox or our opinions as odd. But we don’t mind too much – because we’ve become free. Our sense of what our life is about is no longer so confused with the notion of meeting the expectations of others.
To be free, ultimately, is to be devoted – in ways that might be strenuous – to meeting our own expectations.