“Free" or "not-free" is how most people in the modern world now identify themselves. While the debate as to when the trend towards individual rights in the public and private sphere actually began is more complicated than the purposes of this post (the question reaches as far back as or farther than Ancient Rome), there is no doubt the last several centuries of world history ushered in a new era of freedom for the human race without precedent, and the definition of what makes us free now defines almost everything in our lives, from our status in our culture and society, our political leanings, our purchasing habits and our presumptive daily choices, to our conceptualization of the sovereignty of God, or the existence of God altogether. Freedom is the paradigm by which we define the minutia of our lives and world-views.
As creatives—whether writers, painters, musicians, or community leaders—our ability to pursue the creative path is dictated by our ability to choose freely amongst the many options available to us in a way that conforms with the identities we hold most dear as individuals. In a different time, creatives were much more limited to the demands of their society. This is still true for many in other parts of the world. The ability to decide you are a painter and freely choose a life limited to the scope of your artistic vision is, amongst other things, the gift of freedom. And, in a world of technological and intellectual freedom, the select-few are no longer the only ones who can pursue that path without marrying their artistic identity to any particular religious order or government. Today, the painter can truly live as a painter and nothing else. Such a freedom liberates the creative in a way that allows him or her to pursue their personal vision to the fullest, without alteration or compromise.
And yet, such freedom comes at a peculiar cost that we can almost define as a paradox in that more freedom to define one’s path introduces the danger of never fulfilling one’s path at all. With an increase of options, there is often a correlative increase of opportunities to make poor decisions that hinder personal growth (You see this in almost any system of self-determination, especially in the realm of individual liberties). And, because we often qualify freedom with the belief that the exercise thereof should be for the upmost good of the individual, whether that good be increased health and opportunity, or the ability to live unhindered in the expression of self, this hindrance becomes a form of bondage that can impede the purpose of freedom to the individual. While most will typically seek that which makes them content, the very things we seek to the end of happiness can actually derail that happiness through poor health, alienation from others, excess of ambition, etc.
Philip Seymour Hoffman reflected on this very idea shortly before his tragic death. In a conversation with Simon Critchley, the brilliant actor mused on the fact that pursuit of something inherently good, in excess, can actually produce great pain instead of great joy or happiness. Hoffman used the example of coffee--one cup can bring abundant pleasure and increased productivity, but too much can make us sick. For Hoffman, like so many of us, overindulgence in life quickly followed the discovery of some good that brought pleasure or happiness.
See the conversation below:
So, if the paradox that freedom can deliver us over to bondage is true, the question then becomes what this means to us as creatives. After all, while this lesson can apply to pretty much any discipline or facet of human life, this is a post meant for those pursuing some creative end.
The answer, I think, actually lies in another paradox. In order to be free of the bondage freedom can bring, one must seek the subjugation of one’s personal freedom to a greater cause or power that can bring focus and balance to one’s pursuits in freedom. In other words, by freely limiting our personal freedom as individuals, we can better channel our pursuits as creatives to a more fruitful and fulfilling end. We must limit the range of our creative pursuits in order to fulfill our creative identities.
As an artist and a community leader, I find this concept especially liberating. As a photographer, my work is richer and more meaningful when I work within a set of constraints, whether those be the use of only one particular lens with a short aperture range, or the focused study of only one subject at a time. By limiting myself, I learn more about the world around me and my labors become more meaningful. I become a better photographer, and I thus fulfill my artistic identity to a richer end. Without those constraints, I find myself wandering and lost. I become undisciplined in my pursuit of the medium, and my work becomes more formulaic and less effective. On this point, I think most photographers can relate to the predictably empty results of a meandering ramble in the park, which usually leaves the admirably serious artist with nothing but poorly conceived pictures of squirrels and over-fed geese. Excess freedom in photography thus hinders my very purpose in pursuing that freedom: to become a better artist.
As a community leader, the same is true. The abundance of options has always been a struggle for me professionally, and I suspect the same is true for many others. I'm not saying I've had more job offers than I can handle. What I mean is that because there are so many options in so many different fields for someone interested in non-profit management, by not limiting my focus in purpose as someone pursuing a particular career path, my work runs the risk of defeating the very reasons for which I originally chose to work in such a career. I am one that, if I were left to pursue every whimsical interest in my professional life, I would never move forward towards purposeful contribution to society, an end that only a career-long dedication to a specific goal can achieve. And so, I must define my purpose. I must limit my freedom so as to develop as a community leader. I must drink less coffee.
This concept is certainly not new. The great mystics of multiple religions and philosophical traditions throughout history built their legacies brick by brick on this very foundation. In fact, some scholars even argue this concept was one of the founding principles of the French Republic (the revolution of which quickly ushered in our new era of personal liberty). Yes, the subjugation of the self to the other in order to achieve a more perfect unity of purpose and identity is an idea possibly as old as the quest for personal freedom, and the lessons to be learned are more acute today than ever before.
Based on this peculiar nature of freedom, therefore, one of our challenges as creatives is to take the time to honestly ask ourselves what freedoms are holding us back from achieving our full purpose in creative identity. We must seek ways to limit our ability to pursue every aimless whim that comes our way so as to sharpen our resolve to be creative voices of purpose in our individual communities, our nation, and our world at large.
Andrew Young serves as Marketing and Membership Director at the Lone Star Film Society in Fort Worth, Texas. Andrew graduated from Texas Christian University in 2011, pursuing a career in non-profits. Before joining the LSFS, he served as Web Intern for Art House Dallas, where he worked closely with local artists—musicians, photographers, writers and filmmakers—to help them develop their craft and pursue creative careers. As a creative himself, Andrew is passionate about finding new ways to pursue academics, art and information in community as a way to influence culture and develop a greater understanding of collective experience.