Jean Paul Sartre famously wrote that “existence precedes essence”, that is to say that the brute facticity of our Being is prior to any of the names or descriptions given to it. The most fundamental truth of who we are at our most basic is that ‘we are‘.
And yet, it was Rousseau who said that “Man is born free but everywhere is in chains.” We enter the world with infinite and expansive possibility and potentiality, and soon we become fettered by the chains of the biases, beliefs, and expectations that have all been forced upon us, often by people with the best of intentions. But, I think deep down we have a sense of the shackles. Perhaps it is this implicit knowledge that relentlessly drives us to be more, to do more, to have more; we are attempting to adorn the chains of our imprisonment with the imaginary flowers of achievements and accomplishments, as Marx might suggest.
We are bound, but we are free to unbind ourselves if we could only acknowledge the restraints. Matt Haig says “You can’t climb a mountain you pretend isn’t there”. Similarly, you can’t be freed from the tethers you refuse to see hiding under the embellishments of our own self-deceit. Perhaps radical awareness and critical self-reflection is a place to start: a place that allows us to pluck “the imaginary flowers on the chain,” as Marx says, not so that we would then have to bear “that chain without fantasy or conclusion, but so that [we can] throw off the chain and pluck the living flower.”
When we can see through all the disguised ambitions tied to someone else’s desires external to our own, we can begin to experience the unimpeded freedom built into the simple truth of our being alive.
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