Getting what you want won’t get you what you want

Last night in a moment of self-awareness I decided to scroll through my Instagram. Now normally I turn to Instagram to dull any flashes of self-awareness–I find it to be a pleasant and effective distraction from any nudges towards personal growth. But in this case, instead of flicking through my feed, I looked through my own posts, the beautiful highlights of my life, to remind myself how much I love it.

I did it because I’d realised that I’d gotten stuck briefly into a mindset that just focussed on the things I didn’t like about the stage of life I’m in – I was viewing everything through a narrative of constraint: the things I can’t do because of the little children I have, the freedom I don’t have to determine my own schedule etc etc. If you’ve been there, I bet it’s familiar.

This particular broken mental record began to play when I compared my life stage to the life stage of a couple of friends in a group with whom my husband was going for a ride the following morning, which was a public holiday. One of the woman has older children with only one teenager left at home, and the other woman is still pre-kids. And they can go cycling all morning if they want to, without any child-caring obligations to consider.

And I can’t.

Never mind the fact that I have no desire to go cycling all morning… that’s beside the point, I just wanted to have a whinge.

I started saying, “imagine what I could do if we had a whole day off without kids?” But then I realised that while I could get an awful lot of things done on that hypothetical childless day, it would all be tinged with a longing for kids, for the very life stage that I am in right now.

So I decided to remind myself of the things I love about this stage, and reframe my thinking. Because while the freedom to do what you want is great, having it often means that you have to sacrifice belonging and purpose.

All three are important: autonomy, community, and meaning. They’re like reservoirs of deeply personal satisfaction, of what it means to be human and live well. But, in the West we’ve elevated autonomy – the freedom to do what I want, to realise my self and my life-goals – to the level of idolatry. And in doing that we’ve sacrificed community/belonging and meaning/purpose.*

Because if you want to pursue purpose, you need to sacrifice some of your freedoms. Like if I want (hypothetically) to win a race, then I have to submit to training. I have to go for a run when I don’t want to.

In the same way, if I want to truly live in community with others, I need to sacrifice some of my freedoms. I have to serve other people, I have to adjust my schedule to fit theirs, I have to bend my personal preferences to the good of the greater group, I have to deal with the awkwardness of interpersonal conflict (or “heated fellowship,” it’s a new term I’ve heard and love). Ah conflict, Kiwis are terrible at it. But dealing with conflict well builds community more than if you never had any issues at all.

If I truly want to find a place where I can belong, that means I have to belong to the people there. I simply can’t be 100% my own person.

But autonomy, it’s the greatest good in the West. In every interaction we cry something like…

Cartman meme Respect my autonomy!

Yeah, I hated Southpark. Anyway…

Autonomy is a cultural illusion. It’s a myth that we’re all told we should fight for, and if we’re not getting it 100% then something is wrong and we need to fight for change.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Sometimes we do need to fight for change. But as a privileged woman, I most likely need to be fighting for change for the oppressed, for whom a lack of autonomy means slavery, rape, voicelessness, poverty – and not, wah, I wish I could go cycling all morning… not that I even like cycling anyway.

It’s in reframing the narrative that the breakthrough lies. NOTHING changed in my circumstance, NOTHING changed in my schedule. But EVERYTHING changed in my perspective. I choose belonging and purpose over freedom.

As long as I can also have a couple of hours to myself in the afternoon 😉

* If you want to hear some more about this idea of the three reservoirs of freedom, community, and meaning within an insightful critique of secularism as a whole, then check out this episode True Individuality is Found in Dying to Self from the excellent podcast This Cultural Moment. These guys are gold–intelligent and accessible.

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