Skip to content

Sweet Sorrow | 2017 | The Problem of Cool


Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth.  

-John F. Kennedy

Another Word for Nothing Left to Lose

Am I capable of freedom?

It is not a new question, which may be evidence enough that we don't want freedom. We cannot even think of new questions to ask ourselves, instead pretending threadbare wondering is fresh enough.

I feel oppressed by what I presume to be societal expectations. I feel trapped away from experience I want, blaming a lack of personal wealth and privilege. But, handed an all-expenses paid train/backpacking tour for two through Europe, I might find nervous excuses before accepting. It wouldn't be freedom, not really, but it would be feel less burdensome for a time.

My student loans, which I understood would be discharged after ten years of on time payments (which would still amount to over $36,000 spent, well over what I believe the classes were ever worth), are now going to persist because the president and his venomously wrong Secretary of Education seek to cancel the Public Loan Forgiveness Program just before people could first apply to it. I believed the apparent lie that an advanced degree would assure a good life, that tethering myself to the unrewarding world of education would eventually cancel out the loans that have burdened me. I accepted this trap because I believed in the promise the system offered. I traded away my freedom to a bureaucracy, which would rather see me dead than to have a penny out of place.

In this society, natural human freedom no longer seems applicable. I could not make a life by the calluses on my hands and sweat on my brow and, to be honest, I wouldn't care to. I am not a hunter or nomad. The agrarian revolution tied us to a plot of land, then we spent every day since binding ourselves further, but we are pretty sure it is better than starving or walking tens of miles a day to find water.

I say all this to share the blame, to make myself feel less guilty for acquiescing to stocks, breaking out of one set only to lower my neck into another. Every supposed liberation from servitude led to another because it was the safer option than going out into the woods to live deliberately (though Thoreau returned to his mothers' house regularly to do his laundry; his freedom was somewhat a charade).

Every attempt to do something different than the mass of people is soundly mocked. Like crabs in a bucket, we will pull our peers to their doom, even if it means we will never escape either. We are self-destructive whenever possible if the other option is discomfort, even the sort implicit in someone else leading the life we wish we were.

I honestly cannot tell what my freedom would look like. I am much my own jailer. My desire to live the best life I can, my hunger for friends, my fear of poverty, my craving for stability, my vanity, my connection to the internet, my insecurity are all links I have forged in this chain. Without these, I do not know what life would be. It would be nothing I've ever lived, maybe nothing I can or will ever live. Maybe I am only frightened of the possibility.

I don't know anyone who is genuinely free. I know a few who masquerade, living on their parents' money in their late twenties. Everyone else is owned by their jobs, their kids, their addictions, their gods. We choose these things or do not let them go, so how can we say we want freedom? Subservience is programmed into us and we nurture it in others. The illusion of temporary freedom is a fact in the trap that keeps us going. With only a little more work, a little more money, maybe it would be enough, but it will never be enough for us. The best I can come to freedom is welcoming the fewest number of fetters in this slave state. Some would call marriage a burden, though mine has been more redemptive than either other relationships or being single. My wedding ring is woven gold, symbolizing the force that ties us together, but, to someone else, it would be a noose.

I've heard if said that suicide is the only free action one can take. I don't buy that. You aren't free when you are dead. You just aren't anything. If you wanted to consider your death a protest against the trap, I can't stop you from being wrong. Those you leave behind, the trapped, only wrap another chain around their waists in acknowledgement of your madness.

Maybe the Buddhists have it right, that desiring is the source of every trap. Only by arresting desire do we begin to find freedom. Or we don't. What human system, Buddhism included, is not a means of control over the population, another symptom of the virus?

I have no faith I am being told the truth by the media. Whenever there is a political scandal, a celebrity appears to do something outrageous and foolish and we talk about that instead. We are so easily misled by flashing objects. I feel as though I am bordering on a conspiracy theorist. It seems too cynical and plain to me, that those who arbitrate the "truth" I am given conduct a circus to keep us imprisoned. Of course that is a ludicrous supposition but it makes more sense than that we are ruled by idiotic coincidences. It is hardly a bold stance to say that all media is propaganda we usually uncritically accept because it is exhausting doubting everything. Even at the expense of our freedom, we want to live in a more comfortably, more orderly world.

Before his birth, Oedipus was prophesied to his doomed fate. His children with Jocasta were likewise cursed, well before they could even be conceived. Their downfall was because Laius, Jocasta's first husband and Oedipus's father, kidnapped the son of his protector. The gods afflicted him with this three-generational curse as punishment for his crime, destroying many lives (the Theban citizens also died by the score because of a plague the gods set on it because Oedipus dwelt there, which is apparently totally a fair thing to do because Laius once kidnapped someone!). Having been born in the prison, of this prophecy that he will murder his father and marry his mother, Oedipus fulfilled this fate by trying to escape it. So does he have anything like free will? Maybe, but only in that he keeps seeking the truth even when everyone he cares about tells him to stop looking for an answer that can only hurt him. Our only freedom, like Oedipus, is in seeking the truth of how caged we are, which is not satisfying while rattling our chains. It doesn't break us free. It only exiles us.

As the Law of Thermodynamics says, roughly, "you can't win, you can't break even, and you can't quit the game." We are not free, but we can pick this lock, can examine the exact composition of the bars, can try to get the other prisoners to stop slobbering on their captors (who are, of course, other prisoners. We are all in the prison, expanding and fortifying the walls. There are no free people).

I am not sure who is freer. You'd need to be relatively absent of want, so I doubt one can interact much with the majority of our civilization. We are not built for the lives we lead. We are barely out of the trees, evolutionarily, but marry ourselves to concrete and strangers exploiting our desire for a missing tribe.

This world, this civilization, is a virus that has taken us over. It has allowed more of us to spread more of it, but we cannot survive uncontrolled growth of technology we barely understand. We poison our air and water, cut down our forests hectares a second, for this civilization, not to keep us alive as a species. We swallow the lies borne of this virus. We capture one another so most no longer even bother to wonder if they are free.

Possibly, I can only note I am not free because I have swallowed the bait of access to more and various food than my ancestors, thousands of books, lectures, and songs in my pocket on a drive no bigger than a knuckle. For my compliance, I am rewarded to fatal comfort. I question my cage, measure its dimensions, guess its composition, sneer at the guards, but I don't make an escape because it is the paradigm I know.

The myth of Pandora says her curiosity released every misery that afflicts humanity - maybe that casket contained Western civilization - but that she snapped it shut before Hope could escape. Most take this as a blessing because, oh, we always have hope! It is a curse. Our belief that things are going to get better here, where we are, keeps us from trying to escape. Hope is the most insidious of the curses.

Soon in Xenology: Adventures.

last watched: Under the Skin
reading: Another Roadside Attraction
listening: Temple of the Dog

Sweet Sorrow | 2017 | The Problem of Cool

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.

eXTReMe Tracker