The Essence of True Empowerment: Freedom vs. Independence
As India’s Independence Day approaches I wonder why it isn’t called Freedom Day.
Did India not free itself from its colonisers? Does it matter that the subjugation happened slowly over a few hundred years with the tacit consent of the country’s feuding rulers?
The relationship between the British Empire and India over time had become one of co-dependence: both countries needing each other but with one wielding all the power.
What really is the difference between independence and freedom, especially when it comes to individuals like you and me?
Freedom is the ability to choose: to go where you want, to do as you please and to explore possibilities in their gorgeous limitlessness. It is also defined as the absence of control or external subjugation over your will and resources.
Freedom denotes possibilities in all their infiniteness. And yet, having the freedom is no guarantee of achieving even the smallest of those possibilities. That takes amongst other things: courage, conviction and resources. It is in the arena of resources that we often find ourselves relying on others and becoming hostage to one or more derivatives of being a dependant.
How someone chooses to exercise their freedom is also a function of their understanding and acceptance of their rights vs. their responsibilities.
Ultimately it is about choice: even when the choice is whether or not to exercise one’s freedom. The freedom to choose how we respond to any stimuli is one we’re born with but will often forget to exercise.
Viktor Frankl in his book Man’s Search for Meaning portrays beautifully how it is possible to be free even when you’re consecutively imprisoned in four separate Nazi concentration camps. And conversely, how even his sadistic captors who had all the control sometimes languished within the prisons of their own minds.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.”
So you can have nothing, be at the mercy of others and still be free. Or you can have everything with opportunities to do as you please and still feel trapped. Could it be that in its truest sense freedom is the knowledge that ultimately we are our own captor and prisoner in the scariest of prisons: the one inside our mind?
Now let’s look at the concept of independence and how it relates to freedom. A good starting point might be to begin with the root word dependence for its different branches: co-dependence, interdependence and independence.
Dependence is a state of being in which you are reliant on, or controlled by, something or someone. Independence is the absence of such dependence and being without external control or influence.
As children we are dependent on our parents and other adults for our needs and wants. As we grow older, this dependence can feel stifling. In the exuberance of youth, the idea of asking permission for anything feels like the antithesis of freedom. Hence, most young people can’t wait to fly the nest, to experience the world without being tethered by the leash of parental control.
Perhaps the older we get, some of that brashness of youth is replaced with resignation and acceptance that we must learn to live with rules and resources not created nor controlled by us.
Independence can also be viewed as a state of being in which you no longer have dependants. It’s the lifting of responsibilities that were once a big part of your life, the mundane regimentation of a different kind, one you yourself were complicit in creating.
Most parents with unfulfilled dreams that they’ve not projected on to their children long for the day when their offspring become self-sufficient. Their grown up children flying the nest renders them independent in a very different way. These empty nesters have waited for this golden time when they’ve fulfilled most of their commitments and have both time and resources to fulfil dreams they never before had time or money for.
Dependence can take many different forms: physical (including financial and other material things), mental, emotional and spiritual. Dependency can range from healthy ones inherent to living in a community to unhealthy addictions with their negative consequences. Mental dependence stems from the inability to think for oneself. Emotional dependence can be about relying on others for validation and happiness. We’ll leave spiritual dependence and what it means for another time.
Although dependence has negative connotations, it is not always the case. Imagine a world in which no one depended on anyone else. What a sad, lonely and purposeless life it would be with every man and woman living in a solitary island of complete self-sufficiency!
If freedom is about choice, then dependence is about the resources and structures that shape our choices.
Being dependent can make us accountable. It holds us responsible and may define our ability to translate an idea into reality. Sometimes dependencies imprison us and make us subservient. Sure, becoming independent from such chains is sweet victory. But if you’ve always been independent, chances are you’ve never experienced limitations or controls. They are challenges that are such a big part of creating something you never before thought possible. They push you to places where you never considered yourself capable of going.
Being independent will not automatically confer freedom, and being free does not require independence. Empowerment comes from finding the right balance between freedom and dependence, between rights and responsibilities, and between abundance and scarcity.
To feel truly empowered we must allow ourselves the time, space and opportunities to flow through the different stages in life; to experience different stimuli; to allow space to consider our response to them; and to respond in the knowledge that it could change everything: subtly or dramatically.
Amongst those will be choices on the variation of dependence, interdependence, co-dependence and independence we are willing to accept, tolerate and fight for.