How Can You Be Free When There Are Things You MUST Do?

 

Most of the challenges we face in life are the kind that last a long time. A lot of them last your whole life long.

 

To show you what I mean by that, let me give you an example. You have to watch what you eat. Well and good, but here’s the kicker: you’ll never be done watching what you eat. You had to watch what you ate last year, you have to do it now, and you’ll have to do it next year. By definition and by its very nature, nutrition is the kind of problem that stays with you. Sometimes you’ll have a better handle on it than others, but you’ll always have to eat something.

 

You took a shower today. You’ll have to take a shower tomorrow too.

 

You mowed the lawn today. You’ll have to mow the lawn next week too.

 

You paid your bills today. You’ll have to pay your bills next month too.

 

Most of the challenges we face in our everyday lives have this same perpetual structure: no problem ever gets fully solved, everything degrades by degrees, and you always have to put more effort into the system to keep it from falling apart. In many ways, life is repetitive.

 

Now, you can choose to take this in one of two ways. The first is that you can say, “My God, what’s the point of it all? What could possibly be more dreary and boring than a life that’s made up of nothing but a lot of nested cycles ceaselessly repeating till it ends in the grave?”

 

Let’s be clear: I’m arguing against this view, but I don’t think it’s wrong. Because on its own terms it’s true enough. I think we can all agree that there’s something nightmarish about looking at life as a matter of being caught in a loop. And any person so inclined could find a virtually endless number of quite legitimate reasons to feel trapped somewhere in a cycle not of his or her own choosing.

 

We’re all caught in the cycle of our own language. We’ve all got a particular manner of thinking that we cycle through on a weekly or yearly basis. We’re all caught in the economic cycle of boom and bust. We’re all caught in the cycle of waking and sleeping. Election cycles. Daily cycles. Weekly cycles. Monthly and yearly cycles. Cycles within cycles within cycles, to the point that the whole thing starts to look like a Ptolemaic map of the universe with all its cycles and epicycles. Endlessly running through the cycle, the ouroboros swallows its own tail…

 

Is it any wonder the word “everyday” has taken on such a dreary and depressing connotation?

 

In the end, you can’t argue against this way of seeing the world. The facts are there to support it. Once someone has chosen to experience themselves as the passive victim of a malevolent universe with its cruel machinery, there’s no talking them out of it. They’ll always have plenty of excuses to justify their innocence and prove beyond any doubt that other people were given chances they didn’t have, or that they’re just too profound to do anything but suffer in a life that’s not worth anything.

 

Are they wrong? Well, no. Not objectively at least. But deep inside themselves they’ve decided not to accept reality on its own terms. And that’s an idiotic choice to make, by anybody’s standards.

 

Which takes me to the second way of reacting to the repetitiveness of life: you can choose to embrace it. That’s where freedom lies, really. It’s in choosing to do willingly what you have to do by nature.

 

Does that mean it’ll be any less tedious to get up at the same time every morning and go to bed at the same time every night? No.

 

Does that mean you’ll be bursting with joy when you floss your teeth, one by one, for the eight hundredth day in a row? No.

 

Does that mean you’ll ever get used to the fact that that lousy lawn won’t just sit still and stay mowed? No.

 

But when you decide that you’re going to choose to do these things, the whole character of the thing changes. Sure, you’re going to feel some irritation and resistance at the fact that you’re doing the same damn thing yet again. But it’s no longer the resistance of fighting against some external power that’s imposing its will on you; it’s the resistance of bringing the resentful part of yourself in line with the part of yourself that’s good and self-disciplined.

 

And that’s the value of consistency. When you consistently do something that’s good for you, it’s often the case that the best thing about it isn’t that you’re doing this whatever-it-is that’s good for you. It’s that you’ve formed a consistent habit and managed to turn that into a source of self-discipline.

 

Freedom is a funny thing. I think we’ve all got this spontaneous idea that freedom is the freedom to pick out the brand of chips you want, or something trivial like that. We think of freedom like it’s the opening up of a wide range of possibilities. That’s true as far as it goes, and I think the measure of a free country is that it opens up that range of possibilities. But the responsible use of freedom calls for a voluntary self-limitation. When external laws don’t bind you, you have to be a law to yourself.

 

That’s what consistency means: it’s the voluntary acceptance of the self-limitation that comes with discipline. There’s no strength without discipline, and there’s no discipline without voluntary self-limitation.

 

You can’t always choose to be enthusiastic about the everyday realities of your life. But you can choose to face the everyday realities of your life. Face them willingly and wholeheartedly, full of the awareness that this is your choice and you’ve committed to it without reserve. Over time, with consistency and self-discipline, you’ll mold yourself into the kind of person you can be proud of being.

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