Friday, October 17, 2008

Perfect Consumers...Are We Free?

Today I wanted to share another quote from Kathleen Norris' new book "Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life". I'd promised I'd do this back about three weeks ago. This quote is timely in our current economic crisis, and before the election as well.

"Modern conveniences might save people from tedious labor, but they could do nothing to assuage the sense of being in a precarious position in a rapidly changing world. Instead of feeling carefree, many people felt burdened with more and more "necessities," until they were less able to distinguish between needs and wants, between self-indulgence and self-respect. They became, in short, perfect consumers.

Our politicians are fond of telling us we live in a "free country." But they less often invite us to consider what our freedom consists of and what it is for. In asking those questions we touch on a great dissonance in American culture. In her essay "Keeping the Sabbath," Dorothy Bass observes that
"in Deuteronomy the commandment to 'observe the Sabbath day' is tied to the experience of a people newly released from bondage. Slaves cannot take a day off; free people can."

In that light, how many in the world are free? The poor can't risk losing a day of fishing or farming or factory work. The sweatshop manager doesn't provide time off for illness or leisure. And the rich are reluctant to put the brakes on a society that offers such great rewards for greed, ambition, and workaholic habits that erode the spirit." ---Kathleen Norris from "Acedia & Me", pp.122-123 [Emphasis added by me.]

Just something to think about. How free are we, really? I know that relative to other countries we certainly are in many ways (we are SO free!), but not in others (how can you be really free if you can't afford health care for your children? or when you are a slave to your work and you don't even realize it!?!?!). What do you think?

I'm off for the rest of the day to get my teeth cleaned and then hire a new receptionist for LoveHubbie. Tonight I've promised myself I'm going to have blow-out wild and crazy fun. For me, that means reading fiction :) I'm been abstinent for way too long.

I'd like to get some discussion going here as well, too. So...what do you think?


Rick Hamrick said...

While I completely get where this quote within a quote comes from, I do note a bit of generalization which is, generally [grin] not all that helpful or productive in moving the discussion out of the areas of assumption and cliche into what is truly enlightening.

For, it is my experience, both within and without, that freedom is attainable by the least of us, as we might be judged based upon surface-level criterion, and by the greatest of us, same criterion.

Freedom is not something, I find, one can attribute at any level higher than the individual.

Here's my conclusion: if you feel free, you are. If you feel trapped or constricted or otherwise unfairly held down, you are not.

I promise you that, based upon this measurement, most of the executives at the large corporation where I work would be considered less than free.

Not me. That's the limit of my own responsibility, as I can define and refine it for myself. I can offer help and advise to others, but I can only be the determining factor for myself.

Anonymous said...

It's a good point this author makes. If we are slaves to fashion and slaves to the notion that we must keep up with the Jones' etc, then we are not free. But we may not realize how enslaved we are by these things.

For me, it has been and continues to be a slow and ongoing process of recognizing things I allow to enslave me and one by one, cutting myself free from those bonds. For example, deciding I did not enjoy celebrating Christmas anymore and deciding not to continue. I freed myself from all that stress.

I have cut myself free from society's expectation that I climb a corporate ladder, go to grad school, have kids.

Fortunately I live in a country where I will receive the same level of health care even if I decide tomorrow to ditch the rat race and live on a park bench.

BTW, you and I have very similar definitions of wild, crazy fun. My coworker asked me, "any exciting plans for the weekend?" My answer was, "Yes! The book I requested from another branch is ready to be picked up at the library."

Woo hoo!

thailandchani said...

Freedom seems to have a lot of different implications. On a political level, no, I don't believe anyone has real freedom. Market freedom is not real freedom. It is freedom to choose consumer goods and I don't find that substantial.

On a personal level, I believe freedom is an attitude and the way we approach our lives. We make choices that maximize freedom or we make choices that minimize it.

For me, choosing to not live a householder life is what has given me most freedom - freedom to pursue my spiritual leanings, to learn, to own my time.

In the end, owning our time and existences is probably closest to my definition of freedom.


Olivia said...


Your Victor Frankel-esque approach to this topic is much appreciated. I think it is true. I think that some situations, though, are more challenging than others. It is harder, much harder to feel free as a slave than as a workaholic Wall Street stockbroker. I wonder if being American, we have the freedom to become enlightened and to realize our individual freedom more than someone in a situation where they don't have access to books or Internet or shamans to help them to awaken? What do you think?

Thank you for starting the discussion, xxoo, O

Olivia said...


Health care is such a basic (dare I say) entitlement, so intrinsic to freedom...if you disagree, I wonder if you have ever been ill and unable to obtain health care...Canada's system may be flawed, but it is at least THERE and enables many, many people to live more freely than they otherwise would have.

Inter-library loans!!! Whoo hoo, INDEED!

xxoo, O

Olivia said...


Time freedom is SO my life, it is my most cherished freedom...except that if I didn't have a basic level of wellness and lack of pain, I couldn't really enjoy it. Having your health is so important. Many people have good health without health care and drugs, yet others need basic health care and pharmaceuticals to enjoy simple freedoms.

I appreciate your comment and your example of living a non-householder lifestyle!

xxoo, O

thailandchani said...

O, I agree completely about health care. From a political point of view, I definitely support national health care for everyone.

If there's anything that does keep me from completely owning my own time, it is a sense of urgency about my political activity, my identity as a dissident. I feel a great responsibility to making others aware of these issues and calling them to action.

When all is said and done, when one of us is not free, none of us are free.

Not really.

Great discussion you have going on here! :)


Olivia said...


Yes, but your identity as a dissident is how you contribute...I think that this is perhaps your greatest expression of freedom!! It IS a choice, and you could retire to a life of easy choices with your time...but you are free to contribute, and you do. I think that's a wonderful choice (and I admire you for it), but it is a CHOICE...that you can make or not make because you are very free. In many ways...reason to celebrate tonight, for sure :)

Well, as far as the discussion goes...I thank Rick (who started things), Kelly (who is SO incredibly supportive always) and you, Chani (what can I say...I had you in mind when I posted this!) for your thoughtful contributions.

I love discussions...I love to hear from everyone.

Thank you Chani et al,


Kerstin said...

Hi Olivia, this is indeed an interesting (and vastly potential) topic.

In my view you have kind of nailed it in your last response. I believe that true freedom lies in the ability to make choices. And that is not the same as having choices, note the difference. Because in my opinion you always have a choice, if only in the kind of attitude you adapt in any given situation. Which is often easier said than done, I understand that, especially where there is physical imprisonment, entrapment or suffering.

I do not agree, by the way, that health care is an entitlement. Probably because I do not agree with the notion of entitlement (to anything) in the first place. In the same sense, for instance, do I never take the "freedoms" I have as a woman in today's western society for granted, I do not consider them something I am entitled to. I actually believe it is dangerous to feel entitlement because ultimately it ensues a lack of responsibility and accountability. And with respect to health care, people always do have the choice to go to the hospital, where they will always be treated and not charged if they are not insured. But of course the ER is not supposed to be a doctor's office. And the problem is also that people don't go to the doctor for non-emergencies because they are under- or not insured, thus risking the development of more serious conditions, and missing out on preventative care. This is clearly not a good system, I totally agree. I lived 15 years in the UK where they also have a national health care system and although it is pretty abysmal (long waiting lists, run-down bug-infested hospitals and underpaid/undermotivated staff) it still is better to at least have a doctor one can go to without fearing bankruptcy. Mind you, living in England may still get you close to bankruptcy because the high taxes imposed in so many areas to pay for things such as the "free" healthcare, make life very expensive and for many Brits, not affordable. But now I am digressing :)

Anyway, just being able to voice our opinion here is also a wonderful form of freedom, isn't it?

Warm wishes,

Rick Hamrick said...

What a wonderful bunch of opinions!

Olivia, I cannot feel anything but complimented when you compared my earlier comment to Viktor Frankl's opinions. In fact, his seminal work, Man's Search For Meaning, is not four feet from me this moment.

I agree with you, O, that we can generally ascribe 'easier' to the seeking of freedom of those in positions of power or wealth or privilege, and yet...

If any of us can choose to be free in the existential sense, in that infinite space between self and Self, then who is to say which person has it easier?

The contemplative state within which real freedom exists is a state as attainable by a slave as by a slave to money. In fact, I would be willing to wager that slaves have more free time during which to be contemplative than do type A corporate bosses.

All that being said, I am not seeking to sell myself as a slave (I would not be able to demand much, as I am not the young buck I once was) to prove my theory! Frankl was an amazing man, and definitely the exception in his ability to rise above his experience during the Nazi extermination of his family and millions of others of his religion.

Here's the thing: Frankl proved what is possible. Once he did, all other discussion of the topic is a matter of describing how difficult or easy one sees it, as the possibility is now established as real.

Olivia said...


It is so good to see you here! Welcome back...

I really like what you wrote about the ability to MAKE choices. This is an important distinction, as we all HAVE choices, but we all are not aware of our choices nor skilled in our ability to make them.

I will think about your view on entitlements, because as you describe it, it really does sound irresponsible and annoying---more like a notion than a fact, it's true---good to think about. I wonder what others think about this?

You are correct about the EMTALA laws that mandate that people in the US have to be stabilized and treated in the emergency room where they show up. They are charged, but the hospital probably has no hope of getting paid if they are indigent and it is written off by the hospital. And it definitely is not preventative care, I agree.

That is so interesting to hear about the UK. The difference is everyone paying for the care of sick people (UK) versus sick people paying for the care of sick people (US) or in many cases, not able to pay. And I love your point that it is never free.

Digress away!!

Yes, indeed. It is good to be able to opine with impunity :)

Blessings and love,


Olivia said...


Yes, indeed, I am thrilled at our discussion here!

I notice that you correctly spelled Victor Frankl's name. ARGH! I added another "X" to your award...Don't know how you do it?!?!

Well, I agree in makes sense, but then I'm not yet totally convinced. I think of myself and know that I have it easier than Victor Frankl, despite whatever psychological obstacles I might have to choosing my attitude.

Your example, though, of the slave compared to the Type A corporate boss is one I do agree with. I think that I myself might choose slavery...almost...actually, I'd just quit my job as a corporate boss and get a lower level job and avoid the slavery altogether.

Yes, indeed, Frankl proved what is possible. And we are discussing "hard" versus "easy"...and it's all subjective and perspective.

Again, great discussion!



Olivia said...

Oopsie dooopsie, make that Viktor Frankl---now I hope I remember this for the rest of my life, thank you Rick :)

Rick Hamrick said...

It is perfectly alright for you to view your own challenges as easy, difficult, or anywhere in between, O. My point is simply that we all have the capability and the spiritual fortitude to break free of anything that life can throw at us.

The more we tie ourselves up in knots over the gritty little details of life, the more we absent ourselves from the crux of the matter. To a degree, that's what life in an earth suit is all about: ignoring or forgetting our grand and glorious Selves so we can see what it is like to have flesh and bones to manage.

And then, for many of us later in our lives, we face the conundrum of balancing our lives as sleeping souls with the awakening to who we are, really. It is a real challenge, too!

My neck doesn't hurt any less for my recognition of my powerful nature as an individuation of God. I'll bet there are those who can make not only their pain but that of others disappear, but I'm not (yet) one of them.

So, I struggle just as much as everyone else does, and I also have times when I feel so much that those earthly ills are miniscule, impossibly small.

I'm right both times! It's the central mystery, this feeling fully while also seeking to understand fully.

patti said...

I think we are all slaves to something (the corporate world, that cup of coffee, alcohol, emotional pain, society's norms)

It is true that there is always a path we can take, a choice to be made. Yoga has taught me that it is what we let go of that sets us free. I have chosen to let go of the past & future (The Power of Now)& choose to be conscious & this means freedom to me. It helps me to live happily within the parameters that life has set for me. Each person's parameters are different of course.

Health care is 'free' in Australia for the most part and yes we pay taxes for this. Apparently, Denmark is the happiest country in the world - they pay very high taxes but absolutely 'everything' is subsidised from health care down to a community art class. So yes, they pay for these 'free' things in that sense, but they're happy.

I've waffled on Olivia, so I hope this all makes sense :)

Olivia said...


Absolutely, absolutely it makes sense! It is so interesting to read about how things differ in different countries and everyone's views about it. Also, your view on freedom via what we let go of is intriguing. I do know that I feel tremendously free WHEN I let go of looking at what that thing is and how I am then free of it...I will do this...

Yes, wonderful, Patti :)

Love, and peace, and blessing,


Olivia said...


I was not ignoring your last comment...I just could think of nothing to add to was the coup de grace on that line of discussion!

Thank you and everyone for what you've written about this. I learn so much from hearing divergent views as they make me think and help me to form my own.



Kerstin said...

Just one side note on that report about Denmark ... the Danes were considered happiest not because "everything is free" in their country but because they have low expectations. If you ever meet a Dane you will find this to be not far off the mark, although I can of course not speak for everyone. Generally I get the impression that they are better at enjoying the simple things in life. Alas, my suspicion is also that the welfare and high taxes and good life balance also work because it is a very small country. This kind of system, as nice as it is, would never work over here if not for the sheer size, complexity and diversity of the US, but also it's completely different make-up with states that have a lot more independent control than any county in any European country. And doesn't this "dream" of "being looked after by the government" also go against the very nature of what made the US what it is today, a country very much built by people who believe in equality of opportunity rather than equality of outcome? I can certainly see the appeal of a government subsidized lifestyle, especially where health care and education are concerned, and maybe the desire to move towards this is a natural evolution when a society has reached a point where "having" has become more desirable than "being?"

Aaaaah, but now I digress even more! :)

Angela said...

What a great discussion you've got here, O! Sorry I'm a little late piping in. I believe there are different kinds of freedom. Certainly, spiritual freedom is an inside job, and in cases like Frankl's, it almost seems to be aided by outer restrictions and hardships, as if the closing off of outer freedoms allows the inner freedom to flourish.

Here in the US, we definitely enjoy more political, religious and civic freedoms than a lot of places and I am extremely grateful for that, but I don't mistake it for true freedom of the spirit.

I'm making less money now than I have in literally decades, but I have more time also and that feels a lot more like freedom to me.

Kikipotamus said...

Olivia, I have never been ill without health care, but I completely agree that it is a basic human entitlement. I feel blessed to live in a country where it is provided.

Olivia said...


We live in a Danish-built house, and I know the man who built it, and I would have to agree with your experience of Danes.

You wrote, "And doesn't this "dream" of "being looked after by the government" also go against the very nature of what made the US what it is today, a country very much built by people who believe in equality of opportunity rather than equality of outcome?" I think this is key to who we have been as a people; I wonder now if we are changing? I think we may be.

Again, I do appreciate your digressions :)

Peace and life,


Olivia said...


I'm glad you're chipping in...there is no late here! I think that time freedom is the most valuable; at least it is for me. I could lose my other freedoms, but if I owned my time and was relatively pain-free, I think that would be all I'd need.

I wonder if many Americans value, understand, or want true freedom of the spirit?

thank you for continuing the discussion, Angela,

Peace and love,


Olivia said...


Life is very, very hard when you are anxious about procuring health care. I spent years in this way, years of chronic fatigue syndrome and many other health problems that ended up in poverty and then bankruptcy. Canadians do have this, and I absolutely agree that it is a huge blessing...

much love,