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Why I Don't Feel Free

Freedom. My word-of-the-year for 2010. I chose it because I wanted my focus this year to be less on the circumstances I find myself in or the results I achieve and more on the feeling of getting to choose my responses to both. And I hoped my responses would feel positive and expansive.

As it happens, Freedom is also the title of a book by Jonathan Franzen. I’m reading it now and a passage from the book describing one of the characters—a woman named Patty—got my attention.

“By almost any standard, she led a luxurious life. She had all day every day to figure out some decent and satisfying way to live, and yet all she ever seemed to get for all her choices and all her freedom was more miserable. “

Now, I’m no Patty, and I would never describe myself as miserable, but all the same I often feel that my expectations for myself have become as heavy and constricting as, well, Jacob Marley’s chains, to pick a holiday example.

And I know that deep down, that feeling comes from the sense that I’m not doing enough with my freedom. For his part, Franzen makes the point that Americans exercise their freedom most reliably as consumers of flat-screen televisions and sport utility vehicles. It’s a sobering indictment. And honestly I’m more likely to buy something for my son (this time of year especially) than do anything about world poverty or the extinction of the Cerulean Warbler.

As if that weren’t enough, I also struggle with envy—envy that makes me anything but free. I look at others who seem to have it easier than I do (which is really quite a feat) and I feel like poor old Marley all over again—this time because I’m like a ghost, peering in on a place with more wealth and freedom than I will ever know.

Luckily, I’m usually aware of the thoughts that lead to my suffering. And luckily I understand that I have no control over thinking those thoughts—my mind circulates them, just as my heart circulates blood, and my lungs circulate oxygen.

But the great good news is that I’ve learned not to stay stuck in those stressful thoughts. I’ve learned to turn my attention toward a better-feeling thought as soon as I become aware that my “circulated” thoughts are creating stress and making me miserable.

So now I know I have the power to turn away from stressful thoughts and find something better. And for the times when I don’t quite feel that powerful, I’ve also learned some great practices, like Byron Katie’s Work, to explore my feelings toward the stressful thought more deeply.

So while it amazes me that I cycle perpetually from bad-feeling to better-feeling thoughts (when am I just going to be done already?), the truth is that by recognizing and letting go of my negative feelings, I have a lot more energy to care for my own needs and those of others.

And that energy usually finds an outlet in new avenues for action. So I’ve learned, for example, that every time I feel despondent about world poverty, I can donate to Heifer (www.heifer.org) and send a farm animal to a family in need. If I feel despondent about the extinction of the Cerulean Warbler, I can create a wildlife habitat for my feathered friends.

It’s possible, of course, that none of these little actions will ever really solve anything. And I’m pretty sure that we can’t “fix” anything for anyone else. But in the areas that we know we can do something—our lives, our families, our careers—I believe that once we let go of our stressful thoughts we become more present and available to help ourselves in our suffering and others in theirs.

Freedom. I’m more like Patty than I like to admit: I struggle with freedom. But I’m grateful to the word-of-the-year practice for helping me identify some of the underlying thoughts that make up my suffering—and the better-feeling thoughts that open up a wider world for me. Through this process I have learned that real freedom comes when I choose my response to my thoughts, and that is enough freedom to build a satisfying and successful life.

Did you choose a word for 2010?  If so, what did the word end up meaning to you?  I’ll be posting about my word for 2011 next week, and will be featuring guest bloggers and their words for the year in the coming weeks as well.  If you’d like to contribute a post, just let me know – I’d love to hear from you!