When all of my friends were chasing happiness, I was longing for something else, freedom. It seemed a more important goal at the time, a prerequisite for happiness, if I may. This desire consumed me, making me feel like a hot air balloon tethered by thousands of ropes: obligations, rules, expectations, regulations, an image to keep intact and looking good.
I struggled against these invisible bindings.
My soul longed to be free, but I couldn’t seem to snap the ties that bound me. I was too afraid of what might happen if I broke loose or escaped the life I’d been living.
In his book, The Inner Voice, Henri Nouwen says we constantly seek to escape the pain of not getting the love and acceptance we want and need. He goes on to say we’re afraid of our pain and think of it as a place of death. “Your instinct for survival makes you run away and go looking for something else that can give you a sense of at-homeness, even though you know full well that it can’t be found out in the world.”
So was it freedom I’d been craving all these years, or really just an escape from the pain of disappointment and disillusionment?
This passage Nouwen wrote made me wonder how many of our attempts to escape our current experience are actually about avoiding pain. And better yet, how can we heal the pain so we can experience real freedom?
And so I sat with my initial concept of what my desire and pain felt like. A hot air balloon struggling to be free, to soar into the sky, untethered, unleashed. All of the things that I perceived were blocking my freedom were the very things I used to earn love and acceptance. What I most wanted was to not feel like I had to do them. Could I face the potential pain of rejection that might come if I didn’t follow the rules or meet the expectations I made for myself?
Because we’re given the rules and expectations as a child, and as we mature, we continue to hold them as standards for living. Even if we don’t buy into them mentally, emotionally we’re tied to what we believe will save us from rejection.
Could my desire for freedom, the longing to escape actually be a sign that I wasn’t following my heart? Or that I’d fallen under the spell of believing I had to do something special to win favor and love from the world? Could it be an indication that what I really needed was to accept myself and my life for what it was?
I think Nouwen is right in that we all suffer the pain of uncertainty, disappointment, and rejection. I also agree that we do a lot to avoid feeling it. We have our means of escape available when we want them. We have our addictions whatever they may be and our fantasies about how things might be better, if only.
But at what point do we turn around and face the pain?
If some freedom from that kind of pain is possible, I want that. I don’t know how to find it, but I’m looking for the answers. I don’t have many yet to offer, because I’ve probably been running most of my life to avoid feeling unwanted. I thought if I ran far enough, I might be able to find the place where I belong.
Well, I’m not opposed to running, but there are things happening where I am that have me second-guessing my lifelong strategy. At least I know my options.
What does freedom look like to you? Tell me in the comments below.