Monday, December 3, 2012

What Does Freedom Mean to Me?

I listened to a TED talk last week, and it made me really angry.  Which is a strange and funny thing, because who gets angry at TED talks?  TED talks are amazing, inspirational, and motivating.  They can make you laugh, make you cry, and make you think.  I’m still reveling in the joy that is Gabrielle Bernstein’s TED talk.  When she said, “Those who are certain of the outcome can afford to wait, and wait without anxiety,” I just wanted to weep with happiness.  YES!  That is the power of a TED talk.

Adam Baker’s TED talk, however, was a different story.  Rather than feeling lifted up and ready to fly, I felt weirdly deflated.  The title of his talk, Sell Your Crap.  Pay Off Your Debt.  Do What You Love, sounded like I should find it riveting.  Who doesn’t love stories about people chasing their dreams?!  His talk was broken up into three parts: 1) birth of daughter, 2) talk with wife about chasing dreams, selling crap, and backpacking for a year through Australia, and 3) rant about American consumerism.  Throughout the talk, he asks the audience, “What does freedom mean to you?”

I tried to ask myself that question.  What does freedom mean me?  To be honest, I’m not sure it’s a question that makes much sense during this season of my life.  I’m finishing a year that has, one could argue, offered me a lot of freedom.  I could have quit my job with good reason.  Matt set me “free” when he broke up with me.  It could have been the perfect time to embrace the upheaval and move to Italy, or Seattle, or anywhere but here.  But I didn’t want that kind of freedom, the kind that untethers you from your life.  Instead, I wanted my life, passionately.  I wanted my work and my man.  So I don’t even know how to think about that question about freedom, when what I wanted were the activities and people to which I had committed.

The part of Mr. Baker’s talk that really annoyed me was #3, his rant about American consumerism.  It’s not that I think he’s wrong.  Yes, Americans work too hard, we have too much debt, and we use consumerism as medicine to soothe our stressed-out minds.  Yes, of course we would be healthier and happier if we got a grip on our spending.  I completely agree.  Mr. Baker goes on to say that we should identify with ourselves and other people based on experiences, not stuff.  And while I agree with that in principle, my truth is a little different.  With regard to debt and work, I’m in a good place.  I have no debt (thanks, Mom and Dad, for paying for my college education!).  I have a job that I enjoy and a career that I am building.  Scientifically, it’s a very exciting time for me as I nurture my project into maturity.

You might recall that I’ve been living in a state of uncertainty, jobwise, for a year and a half.  The reason behind this is that my project does not have its own funding—my boss has been supporting me and my project using other money, and we’ve been working together to secure new funding (which is what all this grant-writing business is about).  A year and a half ago, I took a calculated risk and decided to stay in this job.  I made the decision based on two things: 1) science-wise, I felt confident that I was onto something, that I was on the cusp of discovering something new and cool and 2) I liked my life in Texas.  It turns out I was right: I had found something new and project-worthy.  But it was the rest of my life that gave me the fortitude to stick with a difficult work situation: my comfortable apartment, my friends, my family, Matt, my running/biking/yoga.  It was my other commitments that sustained me during a hard summer.  In November of last year, I had to make that decision again when my boss told me we needed to secure external funding for my project: do I stick with this thing I’ve started, or do I leave for something that feels safer?  I chose to stick with it because again, I felt like I was onto something.  I decided that I’m going to run with this project as far as I can.  Is that freedom?  Likewise, I feel bound by loyalty and love to Matt.  The conventional advice is that after a break-up, you should avoid contact with that person in order to let yourself heal.  I admit, there is a certain wisdom to that advice.  But Matt and I never had a conventional relationship, and my healing seems to have more to do with shifting my perspective than it does with whether or not he and I communicate.  Matt is a part of me, because being with him has changed me.  I could no more cut off my own arm and expect to feel whole than I could cut him out of my life and expect to feel healthy.  With Matt, I have to accept the blossom and the wilt.

Freedom to me is the choice between commitment and walking away.  I chose to stay.

PS  I started writing this post with an end in mind, but I have taken the writer’s path in a different direction.  Next up: another kind of freedom, this time one that is much more mundane yet still meaningful.  Happy Monday, all!

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