Personal Freedom, or My Freedom vs. Yours?*

Sameness in oppositesPersonal Freedom, or My Freedom vs. Yours?*


This is taken from a blog, I pray the author does not mind, but the discourse needs to cast a wide net, as more and more explore this dimension of their lives.

In Islam, the most fundamental principle of freedom lies within tawhid, i.e. Unity in God/Allah. All manifestations of the Creator, i.e. creation great and so small that we build concrete over it, have the right. To have that right without creating imbalance in the Divine Matrix, is like a cloth. If all threads possess the same tension, then the whole fabric maintains its integrity, but if one strand of thread becomes weak, or is stronger than the rest of the threads, then distortion in the wave occurs i.e. one affects the other. When claiming a right over a slice of the pie, how many slices can one claim without laying claim to somebody else’ slice?  This is the lesson we have to learn, how to respect and honor ourselves without disrespecting others, including other life forms! It is a sin to cause harm to any of the Creators creation in Islam, a theme which runs consistently throughout its teachings, but a fundamental theme that the human ego has a tendency to override including to one’s own self!

By Syima Aslam,

Another year is on its way out and a pristine, new one is on the doorstep. Many of us at this time of the year tend to pause and make some promises or resolutions, about the type of new people we will become in the New Year.

Last year, for the first time ever, I made some resolutions and I have been reflecting on how true, or not, I have managed to stay to them both in letter and spirit. This reflection, has in part, been inspired by an essay I read by GK Chesterton, the less well-known contemporary of Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, entitled A Defence of Rash Vows which made me think about the promises that we make, both to ourselves and to others, and how seriously we take them.

In the essay, Chesterton talks about how the vow has become an inconsequential thing. His argument is that it is actually the terror of one’s own self in modern times, or rather the terror of the weakness and mutability of the self, that has increased to such an extent that it forms the real basis to either an aversion to vows, or to treating them so lightly that they become meaningless. The essay ends with a rallying cry:

All around us is the city of small sins, abounding in back ways and retreats, but sooner or later, the towering flame will rise from the harbour announcing that the reign of the cowards is over and a man is burning his ships.

The imagery of these last lines is hauntingly evocative. The idea of a person having the willpower to take a stand at this level, not only made me pause and think, it also imbued me with a feeling close to despair at the loss of personal courage being highlighted. It accentuated the fact that an abiding characteristic of modern life is that it is full of small sins and sidesteps. There is not much anymore that resounds in greatness at either end of the personal scale; rather we fumble around in all the murky greys.

We no longer have a terror of our own selves in terms of not keeping vows or taking stands; instead, we actually celebrate this under a mantle of personal freedom. This often translates into the freedom to change and deviate from anything and everything at will. There is no longer any encouragement for taking a stand, moral or otherwise, and those who do so are derided. In my view, there is far more celebration of those who will break their word at will and manipulate situations to their own ends, than those who feel that it is morally right to honour an agreement both in word and spirit. Those who deviate are celebrated as clever, whilst those who do not are seen as being too stupid to grasp the opportunity.

When I first read the essay, I thought of the people I knew who could be depicted in this manner because of course it is so much easier to point the finger. But then I thought, why go so far? Why not take a good look at my own self? Where am I in all of this? What of all the promises I have made in life – the ones that I kept, the ones that I wanted to keep but genuinely found myself unable to do so and the ones that I broke, either without a thought or at least, without too much strenuous thinking.

This made me think – how important are words? Are we the ones who lend weight to our words or do they lend weight to us? Words and people are intimately inter-connected. The sincerity of a person is judged not only by their words but also by the accompanying actions. If I make a promise, the weight of that promise is equivalent to my weight and worth as an individual.

When the Prophet Muhammad asked the people of Mecca whether, if he told them that an enemy army was approaching from behind him, they would believe him, they said yes. This was an unequivocal testimony to the weight of his words and thus the weight of his character. In our current age, how many of our words, or even of those of national and international leaders, carry such weight? In the age of spin, has spin spun the weight out of our words? How often, now, can we talk about someone being a man of his word? Would anyone be able to say this about us? After all, it can only be said where the belief is present that as the word has been given so it will be done.

Of course, inevitably there are times when words fail. When word is given but despite every effort it becomes impossible to keep. The important point however is: was it genuinely impossible to keep or was it a whim inevitably disregarded? For there are times when words are spun like a web, when they are uttered not only lightly without any intention of adherence but also, deliberately used to create a false impression or to entrap. What is the weight then of the person uttering such words, not only in the eyes of other people but also, in their own eyes? Must it not cause you to sink in your own estimation when you know, that even as you speak them, your words are meaningless?

Do you, as a consequence, not become meaningless in your own eyes? Without the strength of our convictions to give weight and provide anchorage, may we not be blown about lightly by the breeze of any whim or fad? Is it perhaps not one of the worst aspects of our current age that not only have we lost the terror of this, but that instead we positively delight in it.

Repeat a LieIn contemporary culture we frame this concept in a slightly, but very significantly, different way to Chesterton. We no longer talk about a terror of the self or, that it is a terror of our own weakness that stops us making the level of commitment that a vow or promise entails. Instead, we talk about personal freedom. While I believe wholeheartedly in personal freedom and the right to self determination, I feel that the concept is one that is widening as we go along.

Nowadays, it can mean my personal freedom regardless of either the cost to, or the infringement of, another’s. It is this type of personal freedom that either stops us from binding ourselves fully or allows us to feel free to bind ourselves continuously but always with a sense of the possibility of retreat. The back door, the way out is always there, always in the corner of our eye. The concept that you and I will fight back to back and take on the world, cannot exist in this scenario because what if either of us has a change of heart at the crucial moment? Likewise, neither does this scenario allow for the burning of boats or bridges.

It is not that I believe that a person should live an unhappy life rather than admit that a particular endeavour may not have been the best thing to commit to. Life is not a straight line; we are subject to many twists and turns all of which also have an effect on our own selves. There have been times when I have felt that I am on a rollercoaster, clinging on for dear life with one very slippery hand, while my body free wheels willy-nilly behind me. What I am deploring is not fallibility but fickleness; the lack of commitment to anything, from an ideal to a person, the lack of appropriate weighting given to words, that is celebrated as personal freedom.

Should this freedom really mean that we can be whatever we choose, whenever we choose, no matter what the cost? Surely there needs to be a balance; a balance between self expression and a responsibility both to ourselves and to those around us. The cause of personal freedom should not mean that we sacrifice courage, steadfastness and the ability to take a stand not only for ourselves but also for others.

What we have to ask ourselves is – in our ‘more for me no matter what the expense to you’ culture, is the actual expense our own selves? In our search for more encounters, more intensity, more excitement, more thrills, ever-increasing satiation of the senses is it actually our own selves that are diminishing? Is it our own sense of self, our own integrity that is the casualty? After all, how many relationships can we taste, consume, throw away before we are so jaded that they become irrelevant or, conversely, we do. How many promises can we make and break, how many stands can we take and then forsake, before our words become meaningless and in the process so do we.


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2 thoughts on “Personal Freedom, or My Freedom vs. Yours?*

  1. Back in the days when philosophy had a meaning (to me), I acquired three books: The Rubaiyat of Omar Khyyam, the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tsu and the works of Chuang Tsu ; one Persian and two, Chinese. They are so full of wisdom, one asks oneself why their teachings are not followed by “modern” man and why philosophy is still taught in schools. To keep things brief, a couple of verses:

    Lao Tsu:

    The softest thing in the universe
    Overcomes the hardest thing in the universe.
    That without substance can enter where there is no room.
    Hence I know the value of non-action.

    Teaching without words and work without doing
    Are understood by very few.

    Omar Khyyam:

    Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
    Before we too into the Dust descend;
    Dust into Dust, and under Dust to lie,
    Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and – sans End!

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