by Niall Doherty

Ever come across something that evokes fresh thoughts on a topic you believed you had all figured out?

Such was the case as I was browsing through a nifty book of travel stories1 and read the following essay by a lady named Charlie Grosso

Free. What Does It Mean And Do I Want It?

I read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce when I was 17. Something Joyce said stayed with me all these years. He believed a man cannot truly be free unless he can sever the ties of family, religion and country. I revisit this idea every so often, as I consider myself to be “free,” or would like to be.

At 17, I had no national allegiance, as I didn’t feel like an American nor did I feel like I was truly Chinese either. I did not have religion (an atheist) and family was something that I couldn’t wait to walk away from as they caused me heartache upon heartache.

As I look out of my traveling window heading south in Mexico my thoughts meander from the concept of Free to Joyce to the movie “Into the Wild” and lyrics from Eddie Vedder’s Soundtrack, “I got my wish to up and disappear.” Riding on this bus through Mexico, I feel free at last. I am at liberty to do just that, disappear. No one is waiting for me to return. I can just keep on going.

At the end of the movie, Chris McCandless* writes, as he is dying, “happiness is only real when shared.”

Which only proves Joyce’s point: being truly, absolutely free is not without cost. At least not by the definition Joyce sets forth. We are the connection and ties that binds us. It might be inconvenient at times, but our most celebrated moments are always when we are in good company.

Only weeks before, I hyperventilated because I was about to set forth into the unknown, all alone. The temporary loss of my Blackberry, my lifeline to the world, also caused me to freak out. I must ask: Do I want to be that free? Do I want to be that un-tethered from anything and everything? Is “freedom from” the same as “freedom to” or is absolute freedom a delicate balance of both? How do I turn the bondage into bonding? Can I be grounded to all that matters and at liberty at the same time?

The concept of being free overwhelms me with its complexity.

* “Into the Wild” is a based on the true story of Chris McCandless who gave up everything, traveled with only what he need to survive, and lived off the land in Alaska for many months until his untimely death.

Charlie Grosso2

Can we ever be truly free?

I don’t believe we can, for several reasons:

1. Invisible lines

There will always be invisible, man-made lines separating nations, and keeping certain people out of certain places. For example, if I was to visit Israel and then go on to try visit a country like Iran or Saudi Arabia, I’d be refused entry at the second door3.

Many of us are of course free to visit other countries, but first we’re required to fill out the appropriate paperwork and pay the appropriate fees and secure the appropriate piece of paper with the appropriate arrangement of ink. And even after going to all that trouble, we’re usually only allowed visit for a short period of time.

As long as we humans feel like we own the Earth, none of us can travel with complete freedom.

2. The obligation paradox

From a recent post by J.D. Roth at Get Rich Slowly

“If you’re lucky enough to be free, do you have an obligation to help others who aren’t free? To give them this power too? And if there really is an obligation, then doesn’t that mean you’re not actually free?”

For better or worse, I feel that obligation. Life would surely be easier if I didn’t, because then I could just go live out my days on a nice beach in some cheap country where the people are friendly and the women promiscuous.

3. Long-term relationships

For any kind of relationship to work long-term, I believe there has to be compromise, and often even sacrifice. I know I’ve burned bridges in the past with my unwillingness to do either. At a certain point though, I imagine I’ll come around to valuing long-term relationships more than I value my independence.

Someday I’d like to be a father4. Someday I’d like to be romantically involved with the same woman for more than eight consecutive months. Someday I’d like to try growing my own food. And I know I’m free to do all of those things right now, but the following rings true…

You can have anything you want in life, but you can’t have it all at the same time.5

Your thoughts on freedom

Are you inclined to conclude, as Charlie proposed, that freedom is a delicate balance of freedom from and freedom to?

Or does absolute freedom in any one area of your life require you to relinquish your freedom in several others?

What’s your definition of freedom?

P.S. If you’re digging this topic, you should go check out Tyler Tervooren’s recent posts over at Advanced Riskology. For the entire month of February he’s leading a discussion on the meaning of freedom, why it’s important, and how to get more of it.

Show 5 footnotes

  1. That book is called Travel Means Freedom and it’s due to be released soon. Follow @wegetthere on Twitter for the skinny.
  2. Huge thanks to Charlie for allowing me to publish her essay here on Disrupting the Rabblement. To read more from her, check out her blog Spytravelogue. You can also see some of her kick-ass photography over at
  3. That’s assuming I get my passport stamped in Israel. Otherwise I could just pretend I’d never been there.
  4. As I’ve written before though, I’ll likely go the adoption route rather than add to the world’s overpopulation problem.
  5. I first heard this via the legendary Chris Guillebeau, but no idea who should get the original credit.

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