A Word for the Complexity of Freedom

The Dizziness of Freedom • noun • (thuh dizz-ee-niss uhv free-dum)

Definition: the anxiety, fear, and uncertainty that comes with freedom

Origin: Danish (Søren Kierkegaard) 

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America is a society that talks about freedom all the time. However, the more we talk about freedom, the more obvious it becomes that we do not actually understand it and its complexity.

Far too often America discusses freedom in relation to oppression, where freedom equates to the absence of oppression. For a society whose foundations included chattel slavery, this juxtaposition and understanding of freedom makes sense. Enslaved people were not free, therefore this logic would infer that those who are not enslaved are free. However, this scenario poses profound questions.

If America’s “free” people condoned the denial of freedom to others, is their understanding of freedom dependent upon the denial of freedom? If enslaved and oppressed people became free, would a large section of Americans consider the existence of the newly-freed as a denial of their “freedoms”? If a “free” society is dependent on the denial of freedom, does freedom actually exist in the society?

American society does not spend much, if any, time discussing these questions because we have no concept of freedom without systemic oppression. Tragically, America encourages us to embrace this iteration of “freedom” and simply imagine that the oppression either never existed or has already been solved. America’s concept of freedom is a freedom that includes oppression, and this “freedom” is defined as the opposite of the oppression that the “free” society also creates. This is not a freedom forged from equality, and due to this Americans are encouraged to embrace our oppressive status quo and told to call this oppressive norm “freedom.”

America’s dystopian discourse tragically makes us less capable to embrace, examine, and explore freedom, while simultaneously convincing us that we live in one of the most free societies in the world.

America’s understanding of freedom is of a “freedom” that supposedly can exist within an unequal, divided society. Therefore, as some Americans aspire to create an equitable, united society, we must acknowledge that this aspiration will also require a new understanding of freedom.

The dizziness of freedom can help us understand the complexities of freedom as we work towards existing in an equitable, united society.

The Dizziness of Freedom

In 1844, Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard published Begrebet Angest and 100 years later it was translated into English under the title The Concept of Dread, or better known today as The Concept of Anxiety.

In his book, Kierkegaard describes the anxiety that comes with freedom as the “dizziness of freedom” because the infinite variables and options that come with freedom can make us anxious as we try to make good decisions. 

We have anxiety as we confront the infinite, and good philosophy is here to help us embrace these anxieties and thrive within the infinite. However, far too often, people shun the anxieties of freedom and instead try to turn our infinite world into a finite world devoid of anxieties. By suppressing the infinite, people also smother the spirit, soul, or Geist of their society.

In Begrebet Angest, Kierkegaard describes this culture of oppression and denial of freedom by saying, “In spiritlessness there is no anxiety. It is too happy for that, too content, and too spiritless . . . Spiritlessness is spirit’s stagnation and ideality’s caricature.” 

America’s interpretation of freedom speaks to the spiritlessness that Kierkegaard describes because our society embraces a stagnant caricature of freedom. We celebrate freedom but are unclear about what our freedom provides. 

We have a democracy that embraces voter suppression. We have free public education, but we know that the quality of that education largely depends on your race and your family’s wealth. In addition to these inequalities, we know that schools are not a safe haven for our children due to rampant school shootings and COVID-19 policies that endanger their lives in the name of individual liberty.

We have a work culture that encourages all of us to work nonstop while also hardly paying Americans a livable wage. Many of these jobs do not provide Americans with healthcare.

America’s freedom consists of constant work, financial insecurity, inadequate healthcare, poor education, and a democracy that discourages people from voting. 

This is the caricature of freedom. Our anxieties do not emerge from gazing into the infinite, but the looming prospect of systemic problems such as gun violence, medical bills, student loans, unemployment, police brutality, etc. that America could greatly alleviate if it had the desire to do so. 

Americans often become dizzy and anxious due to the absence of true, equitable freedom, and the presence of an oppressive, stifling reality that our society refuses to fix.

Individual Liberty and Standing on a Cliff

When Kierkegaard describes the “dizziness of freedom,” he used the analogy of standing on the edge of a cliff. This analogy is similar to “the call of the void” which we spoke about in a previous newsletter.

The dizziness occurs as you peer off the cliff and start imagining the infinite number of ways that you could harm yourself. Your freedom includes the capacity to go momentarily insane and jump off the cliff. Your freedom also includes the potential of slipping and falling off the ledge to your death, despite your desire to stay alive and live a vibrant life. Likewise, another person’s freedom could consist of them running up behind you and pushing you off.

Freedom includes the potential for calamity and this realization should make everyone anxious. Therefore, if freedom comes with this anxiety and oppression comes with an even more bleak manifestation of anxiety, we must explore how we can become less dizzy while also free.

I propose that our connections to other people will alleviate our dizziness as we revel in our freedom.

For example, if I’m peering over the ledge and contemplating if I should or should not jump off, my connections to other people will be the primary factor to convince me to step back. I’d think about the people who need me and would miss me. Likewise, if someone saw me as I stood at the edge of the cliff, they would try to create an emotional connection with me to convince me not to jump. They would try to show me that my life matters to them.

Our comfort, security, and freedom comes from our good faith connections with other people, and this is why America’s interpretation of individual liberty actually destroys freedom.

When we strive to exist as individuals without meaningful connections, it becomes much easier to convince yourself that jumping off a cliff or pushing another person off is an expression of your freedom.

The individual liberty to not vaccinate yourself against COVID-19 and expose yourself and others to a deadly disease equates to a denial of freedom and a plunge into the abyss, but America still considers this to be a freedom that must be protected.

When existence and other people become less important concepts than individual freedom, people have chosen to create a finite world for themselves filled with superficial pleasures and no anxieties.

As COVID-19 has shown, unvaccinated Americans who champion individual liberty gleefully jump off the cliff and into the abyss as they endanger their own lives and the lives of others in the name of “freedom.” Additionally, when laws and rules are created that mandate vaccination, these unvaccinated Americans often turn violent because they believe that making a decision for the betterment of their community would equate to a denial of their individual rights.

These Americans are not dizzy as they peer over the cliff because they have instead chosen to gleefully jump off the cliff. Their plunge into the abyss creates an anxiety for the rest of America because their delusions exist to destroy any semblance of freedom.

Anxiety is an inevitable part of life, but it is important to identify the causes of our anxieties. The dizziness that comes from the infinite possibilities of freedom must be an anxiety that we embrace and cope with by forging authentic relationships with those around us.

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