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  September 16, 2002

Freedom, Love, and Self-Regulation

In his book Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing, A.S. Neill, writes:

"It is this distinction between freedom and license that many parents cannot grasp. In the disciplined home, the children have no rights. In the spoiled home, they have all the rights. The proper home is one in which children and adults have equal rights." (page 107)

License, in this sense, is the absolute privilege to do whatever one wants - regardless of others. Freedom, on the other hand, is the right to do whatever one needs without restricting the rights of others to do whatever they need.

However, this is not easily defined in practice. If I have the need to yell angrily, and you prefer quiet, are you restricting my right to expression, or am I infringing on your right to have quiet? Where do we draw the line?

The whole issue is complicated because much of our interaction is motivated by hidden neurotic triggers - factors unrelated to the situation at the moment. To use the above example, when you sit quietly in your chair, it may unconsciously trigger angry feelings in me about my emotionally distant mother. You may even unconsciously sit quietly to provoke me and to confront unresolved issues about your raging father. In such a case, my "right" to loud expression, and your "right" to peace and quiet, will both be neurotic manipulations - and not expressions of genuine freedom.

This is where the primal ethic of owning our triggers and "taking it to the mat" is essential. Until we deal with the feelings behind our behaviours, our demands for freedom will be driven by unresolved childhood needs, not just present-day needs.

Another essential safeguard against the abuse of "freedom" is to consider the feelings of everyone involved. As Neill said, equal rights are the goal. In a lop-sided relationship, one person's needs are met and the other's needs are denied. Some people care only for themselves and not others. Conversely, some people are compassionate and accepting of others - but not of themselves. When we can take care of our own feelings and the feelings of others equally, we have a chance at freedom - and real love.

In my Thought of the Week, "Love," I state

"To me, love is a word that speaks of a deep, bonded interconnection that transcends our so-called individual boundaries. When people are in love, they share sensations, feelings, and perceptions. They are more aware of each other's pain and joy."

When we feel only our feelings - or only the feelings of someone else - there is no real equality, love, or freedom. When everyone's feelings and needs are taken into account, then no one's needs can be neglected, and balance is possible. This is how we get to self-regulation in ourselves, in relationship, or in community.

Love becomes the bottom line for balance and self-regulation. Love is a state of interconnection where feelings are shared and accepted. Love in action is freedom - a state of equality where all needs/feelings are in the open and are accepted as they are. When everything is available/accepted, then no need can go unaddressed, and the system (as individual, relationship, or group) will self-regulate to balance. When things go out of balance, love and freedom will allow the unmet needs to be considered, and the system will readjust back to balance.

I have seen this work most clearly and simply in primal support groups that work within a free, non-structured premise. Occasionally, some people will drag the group off-balance by interrupting or taking an excessive amount of time. At some point, those who are most affected will share their discomfort with this inequality and an apparent chaos of reactions and feelings will result. Often at these times some members will insist on specific formats such as equally divided time, or a "talking stick." If left alone within the environment of freedom and love, however, the uproar will act as an "awakener." The needs that arose in the crisis will be addressed, and the group will naturally learn - and adjust to a new level of caring and awareness.

It is the freedom and courage to experience conflict that leads to greater depths of feeling and awareness. A rigid set of rules (maintained through fear of expulsion/reprimand) may avert conflict, but will inhibit growth. It may achieve a semblance of order, but it will be an order full of tension - the tension of all the unexpressed needs. We will have order, but remain stuck in old patterns because the needs that drive them are deemed unacceptable and cannot burst out into the open to be seen, felt, and resolved.

A lack of rigid structure, however, is a not a license to express anything anytime without response. When people act out (dump) their unmet needs on others without owning the origins, the process only goes out of balance if the others allow it. By not addressing the irresponsible act-out, the others are not caring for themselves and are allowing the "actor" to continue the unconscious pattern of abuse. I don't deserve someone's childhood anger being dumped on me. It isn't mine. If I care for myself, I may ask them, lovingly, to "own it" and express it responsibly. Such a request isn't unaccepting. I accept their feeling as valid, but I do not accept being a target, since the feeling isn't ultimately about me - even if I was the trigger.

Freedom, like love, is a challenge. It is rooted in equality, and equality isn't an idea, it's a state of connected feeling - connected in ourselves and connected to others.

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