Safe enough to thrive

I read Greta Thunberg’s UN address today and I’m glad I was looking at the transcript rather than the video. The words alone, sans any added emotion in her delivery, were jarring enough. Sure, it was designed to be a slap in the face to dawdling political leaders. But while I agree we need to take stronger action to counter climate change, Greta’s (self?) righteous anger actually left a bitter taste in my mouth.

Yet as I let my thoughts percolate, I remembered that anger is not a bad thing in and of itself – even if I’m averse to it and tend to diminish my own experiences of anger. We should be angry at injustice. Greta is right in that she shouldn’t have to be there at all, standing up for hers and future generations.

Anger has, in a way, historically been the spark for a multitude of political revolutions demanding freedom, from independence and civil rights movements through to the abolitionists calling for an end to slavery.

Photo credit: Bob Blob.

We may not think immediately of freedom when we talk about climate change, but ultimately Greta’s goal is to ensure we have the ecological conditions in which future generations are safe enough to thrive. In the same way, through my work at International Justice Mission, we’re seeking to end slavery by protecting the poor from violence so that they might be safe enough to thrive.

I think this concept is true of our personal lives, too, although we are often confused about what freedom actually is. We might throw around the retort, “I’m a free man/woman” when we don’t want to do something (or jokingly when we’re newly single). We might resent overbearing parents who dictate our lives. We might pursue personal freedom by moving out of home, by leaving the country, or by accumulating wealth so that we have options. Because more options equals more freedom, right?

I’m not so sure.

Photo credit: niu niu.

It’s a sweet and sour irony that we spend our youth trying to break free of authority and then as we “settle down” we opt into the chains of long-term monogamous relationships, and supersize the commitment by birthing utterly dependent little humans. And eventually we’re old and age becomes a very tangible limit on our physical freedom.

I think what we long for isn’t so much an unfettered freedom to do whatever we like, but to be safe enough to thrive.

Failing at freedom

“Safe enough to thrive” doesn’t guarantee that we will thrive. This, ironically, is a marker of freedom – freedom to fail. And all too often we fail at freedom.

After victims of slavery and trafficking are rescued, they often don’t know how to live in freedom. They’re so used to being controlled by a slavemaster or madame, to not being allowed to care for themselves. They don’t have the skills to operate in a world where they are free and as a result, they become vulnerable to retrafficking.

Funnily enough, those of us in “the free world” don’t really know how to be free, either.

Just look at our free market – it’s grown disparity instead of prosperity. Even in a country like Australia where the wealth gap is not so wide relative to most other countries, there are still over 50,000 homeless individuals here, not to mention the massive disadvantage indigenous Australians continue to experience on pretty much all indicators.

Just look at our free society – addicted to devices, to fast food and fast fashion, to tabloids and hype. Our socioeconomic and cultural tribes are increasingly fractured.

It’s unsurprising in this context that climate change continues to be a huge, looming issue. Our free market and free society have left the voiceless – both the poor and the natural environment – vulnerable to exploitation. We’re failing at freedom.

The story is similar in our personal lives. We believe ourselves to be in control, ignorant of the desires and ideologies and little voices that eat away at our freedom. Like the society we’re part of, at a personal level we unwittingly enslave ourselves to other things – to expectations, what others think and want of us, to comparison.

It’s frequently more banal than this. The abundance of choice we have as free people can paralyse us (and/or amplify our sense of FOMO). I think quarter-life crises are a prime example of this phenomenon.

Most shopping experiences – whether it’s browsing clothes online or groceries at the supermarket or a restaurant menu – feel this overwhelming for me. Photo credit: Victoriano Izquierdo.

Forgoing freedom

Democracy only functions because we surrender some of our rights for a greater good, the understanding being that we benefit from this greater good also. And yet we continue to demand freedom without being willing to make the necessary sacrifices. To that extent, I agree with Greta’s detractors who have argued that students could have marched on a weekend if they were serious about climate actionWhile there is undoubtedly a short-sightedness to current politicians and policies, we encourage this myopia by continuing to vote for them. In short, we’ve preferred tax cuts to renewable energy.

I’ve written previously on the nexus between love and freedom (in Beauty and the Beast, no less!), whereby true freedom is the product of voluntary sacrifice motivated by love. We love love, but we’re not such big fans of sacrifice.

True freedom requires sacrifice made not abstractly or generally, but intentionally and probably on a daily basis in prioritising someone else’s needs and preferences. Making space in our hearts and lives for an Other – whether that’s a partner, Jesus, a friend or your literal/metaphorical neighbour.

Photo credit: Priscilla du Preez.

Commitment gives us a whole different breed of freedom – we tend to think that other people and their expectations hold us back from being ourselves, when in reality our deepest relationships are the ones that provide us with a safe space, with the greatest degree of freedom to be loved as we are, and loved into being the best possible version of ourselves.

How, then, can we be a society committed to each of its members?

I wonder if the anger we saw in Greta Thunberg’s speech, or in the “forgotten” Americans who voted for Trump, could be leveraged for good. Because anger is often a symptom of deeper hurt. And if we cared enough to listen – really listen – the anger could point us to real injustices and become a launchpad for constructive dialogue. I wonder if, instead of defensive mudslinging and ludicrous protest votes, we could create a safe space for conversations about the real injustices experienced by sectors of our society. Isn’t that what Parliament was designed to be?

Only when all of us – from the most powerful to the most marginalised – are safe enough to thrive can we be truly free people in a truly free society.

Until we are all free, we are none of us free.

Emma Lazarus

Header image by Markus Spiske.

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