More Discussion of Escape from Freedom

Fromm begins his book — and his argument — with his two definitions of freedom — one positive (Freedom To) and the other negative (Freedom From). I’m not sure I buy those as opposites. Freedom FROM hunger is freedom TO eat. Freedom from oppression is, uh, oh, yeah, freedom. But I’m happy to see where he goes with that (to me) rather arbitrary dichotomy. I know one thing for sure about freedom. It’s difficult to define.

Yesterday the ladies and I went to the museum to see the new exhibit which is all kinds of stuff from the olden days. The idea is to figure out what all these strange things were used for. Lyndsie (the new director) made a guide to go with the objects that are common household tools and objects for farming, things like a cream separator and a seed spreader. We had a good time. It was followed by lunch which wasn’t great.

Elizabeth is Australian and she got up early to watch Queen Elizabeth’s funeral. She’s long held the thought (and frequently expressed it) that the United States needs a royal family. On the drive home, I mentioned I was starting to see her point. That led to a front seat discussion about presidents and who did and did not “act presidential.” They agreed Obama acted presidential; there was dispute over whether Biden does. I was in the back so I had the privilege of listening with Fromm’s book still on my mind. I think a lot depends on what a president inherits when he takes office — and Biden inherited a mountain of shit — divided country, an insurrection, a pandemic and its resultant economic challenges, all followed hard on by a war in Europe.

When I was able to pick up Fromm’s book again — beginning a new chapter, “The Emergence of the Individual and the Ambiguity of Freedom” — I was again stunned.

“The social history of man started with his emerging from a state of oneness with the natural world to the awareness of himself as an entity separate from surrounding nature and men.”

Good god… This was a little challenging for me because I think our separation from the natural world is an illusion. We might THINK we’re free of it, but we’re not and, in this particular case, that is to say it seems to ME, that at this juncture in human history, this drive and (its corresponding illusion) is killing us. The other day, MTG said, “AOC worships the climate. I worship God.” All I could think was, “Uh they are one and the same you stoopnagle.”

Too much abuse of our world, resulting from our freedom to create an environment designed for man, might lead us to a very sinister negative freedom, that is freedom FROM life. But the bizarre end-days cult to which she clings might be all about that, after all Revelations says the world will end in fire. I don’t know. I can’t know what goes on in their twisted little minds.

Fromm went on to discuss the emergence of each of us as an individual, a process he called individuation which is the moment in which a person recognizes that he/she is a separate entity, not connected to parents, but a self of its own. As I read I thought about my own childhood and recognized the moment, though it wasn’t a “moment” so much as a process of self-definition that took about three years. It began on a train crossing Wyoming north to south and culminated in a little movie theater in Nebraska watching Lawrence of Arabia and sucking on sour cherries. The first was the opening of the question, “Who am I?” the end was, “I am no one but myself.” A book was an instrument in the beginning; a film in the completion.

I remembered the numerous times my mom said, “You and your brother were easy as little kids and then?”

Well, mom. I thought of all the times I said, “I’m not you. THIS is what I want to do.” I understood at that point that what I did might not work, but I was OK with that, I was OK with failure. My independence mattered more to me even as a kid than success.

It hurt when friends snubbed me (kids do that) and it wasn’t easy for me to make friends, but after a while that was OK, too. I didn’t feel isolated. I came to understand back then, on some level, that all the kids around me were in this process, too. That was one reason kids fight. That was a motivation behind adults organizing us into team sports where each of us would begin to focus more on a skill than in competing for identity. It seemed to me at the time — and I have no idea if it’s true — that girls were generally less determined to become selves than were the boys. Their playground games were more peaceful and sedentary; their games at home seemed to revolve around role plays of adult life. The boy’s games interested me more; I wanted individual achievement. I wanted to get better at things, run faster, hit more balls, see more, know more.

Fromm then discusses how the moment (process?) of individuation affects people (the process is inevitable). Some people are overwhelmed by the sense of solitude in the universe. Others recognize the solitude, but accept it.

“The process of individuation is one of growing strength and integration of its individual personality but it is at the same time a process in which the original identity with others is lost and in which the child becomes more separate from them. This growing separation may result in an isolation that has the quality of desolation and creates intense anxiety and insecurity, it may result in a new kind of closeness and a solidarity with others if the child has been able to develop the inner strength and productivity which are the premise of this new kind of relatedness to the world.”

Whoa. Person 1 — riddled with anxiety and insecurity — will seek submission to escape that painful solitude. Person 2 won’t, having made peace with freedom, or so it goes more or less. I’m not sure, but this seems to be the argument Fromm is building. Naturally, I brought all this home to people I have known. I saw my mom in a completely different way. I saw that she never made peace with the intrinsic solitude of individuality, never found a way to live productively within it. It struck me that perhaps the foundation of freedom is just that. “I’m alone and it’s OK with me.”

Fromm makes that point.

P.S. This might be tedious, but I don’t have anyone around to talk about this with. Writing about it helps me process the ideas. The book is just under 300 pages so this won’t go on forever 😜

9 thoughts on “More Discussion of Escape from Freedom

  1. Now this is a book I need to read! I remember that moment when I knew I was separate from all others and felt the weight of solitude. I was in 2nd grade and had been sitting on the swingset. My friends wanted to go do something else and I chose not to follow. It was a shift in the universe…

  2. I’m alone (with my dogs) and it’s okay with me! I wish it were okay with those around me. So much pressure to conform, be part of a group/culture/movement. Nope, thanks; good on my own. Which makes me a freak to most. Reading this post, I kept wondering if, at some level, what Fromm’s describing is also the difference between introverts and extroverts? I appreciate these thoughtful discussions, Martha!

    • I appreciate them, too! Too bad we’re not close enough to read the book together and talk about it as people do (I’ve heard 😉 )

      I don’t think Fromm is going specifically to introverts and extroverts. I think he’s going to people who are productively integrated with themselves and their world and those who aren’t. You are and I am, even though we’re both mostly solitary. That was a point in his book Identity, Youth and Crisis as well as I remember it. As I recall that kind of integration is essential for a person to be happy with themselves. I think of myself as an introvert but I’m pretty much in the middle there. It’s just that the things I like to do aren’t done with other people; writing and painting are not social. I’d love to have hiking pals, but that’s pretty hard to come by. Even when I was younger it was difficult. So the question is “Go alone or don’t go.” Well, go. Independence is a sign of a person who has found a way to live happily in the world that’s where it seems Fromm is going. The need to submit to authority seems to be the opposite. Stuff came up today so I didn’t get to read. I hope I can keep going tomorrow.

      • Wouldn’t this be a great book club discussion? I’m eager for more. Sounds like our youthful experiences and approaches were similar. I remember the revelation, the sense of freedom and independence I felt, the first time I dared to go to the movies by myself or sit in a restaurant by myself in my twenties, and enjoyed it. Powerful!

  3. Freedom is a terrible and frightening thing. They is why we do not often embrace it.

    Still, his division between “freedom from” and “freedom to” is unnatural.

    • I’m not sure where he’s going with his “freedom to” and “freedom from.” In a purely literal sense I guess they are opposites, but within each freedom ‘to’ there is freedom ‘from’ so I’m curious. I don’t agree with you about freedom being terrible and frightening. By the nature of our species our freedom as individuals is necessarily relative. Fromm is writing specifically about why fascist systems attract so many people. I’m deeply interested in that.

      • My theory is that they attract people because fascism takes away all the questions and replaces them with security. For the ordinary person it takes away the need to think and make decisions. There are quite a few people for whom thought is very hard work with an uncertain outcome.

        Fascism becomes a religion itself. The answers are all provided for you.

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