The Thing We Want More than Freedom
The paradox of traveling is that, when you don’t have a clear destination in mind, you can end up drowning in decision paralysis. Wandering is a hamster wheel if you don’t even know where you should put your body for the night. The choice of where, physically, to occupy space is a fundamental one. Until that has been decided, you really can’t do anything else.
What was supposed to feel like freedom ends up a terrifying superposition. You are both here and not here until you figure yourself out.
The beauty of traveling is that, if you don’t know what you want, you can let yourself be led by anything. The friend further West stopped texting back, so I went East. A storm is coming up the South, so I went North. The clouds rolled in so I left the beach. The squirrels were cute and friendly so I stayed.
Everything and anything can direct your life, pulling it in an infinite number of directions. If you really, really don’t care where you end up, there’s no wrong way to go.
The thing is, most of us do care where we end up. I care very much where I’m going. I’m just not sure where it is.
We’ve known for decades now that too much freedom isn’t good for our mental health. Psychologist Barry Schwartz popularized the phenomenon in his 2004 book The Paradox of Choice, which explored the way having too many options to pick between leads to greater anxiety and less satisfaction with our choices.
Yet we also know that autonomy and freedom are critical to our well-being too. We have a psychological need to make choices that align with our own desires, values and goals. Forming autonomy and independence are crucial components of human development, and numerous development studies have centered on understanding when and how we create our capacity for personal freedom.
But there’s something we often ignore in focusing on how we enact our need for autonomy, and that is the state of being that autonomy arises in contrast to. If we develop our capacity for autonomy, it develops out of a baseline of something that isn’t autonomy. Something we need just as much as, if not more than, freedom.