From Serfdom to Freedom

The terrorists. The government. The opposition. The corporations. The protestors. The system. The censors. The religions. The neighbor’s horrible music that doesn’t let us sleep: There are many suspects when it comes to identifying enemies of freedom.

Unfortunately, for those of us who are lucky to live in the richer parts of the world, the biggest enemy of freedom can be found right inside of us. He isn’t so hard to get rid of because he’s superior – but because of the powerful tactics he uses: Fear and ignorance.

Fear and ignorance are what keep us in serfdom.


“Lose 10 pounds in 10 weeks – or your money back.”

We all love guarantees.

Freedom doesn’t come with one.

Even in a free society, your neighbor may go nuts and shoot you at some point. ((As long as there are firearms, that is. But even if there weren’t, he could still stab you – though that’s a lot less likely.)) He may kiss your wife. He may steal your car.

This is why we long for guarantees. As long as our fear controls us, we won’t accept anything less.

  • “Hmm, I’m in this job and it sucks. But who guarantees me that I’ll find anything better if I quit?”
  • “All right, I’ll meditate with you, but only if you guarantee me that I’ll walk away enlightened.”
  • “I’ll only marry you if you guarantee me eternal love and happiness.”

The truth is, there are no guarantees. We may enjoy the perfect life today and have a grand piano fall on our heads tomorrow. The universe can be ironic at times.

Ignorance and Its Discontents

To be sure, fear is only one part of the problem. It’s not that we simply have to get rid of our fears and everything will be fine.

Because it’s not just that we’re unable to make a concrete plan for traveling the world or asking that awesome girl out. Or even that we’re unable to execute that plan once we have it.

It’s that we don’t even think it’s possible!

It’s not that we consciously decide against doing interesting things in our lives. It’s that we’re not even aware of all the great things we could do!

These, then, are the enemies: Fear and ignorance. And if I had to define freedom, I would say that freedom is what we get once we overcome our ignorance and fear. In this sense, freedom is a process, not a status quo. This also means that it’s something that we should never take for granted.

The Antidote

Maybe it’s no wonder that German, supposed to be the language of poets and thinkers, doesn’t have an equivalent for one of the most beautiful English words. It’s a word that goes beyond the stereotypical German desire to plan and control, to completely understand and order the world we live in.

That word is serendipity. ((German readers: I’m open for suggestions. “Serendipität” doesn’t quite cut it for me.))

Serendipity means not knowing what we’re looking for. And still being open to find it. It means unlocking our natural gift to make fortunate and totally unexpected discoveries in our daily life. And it’s an antidote to a life without freedom, because it helps us to overcome our fear and ignorance.

I know this may sound weird to many. And still, there’s a serendipitous notion to freedom: It’s something anybody can experience, but that’s somehow still beyond our control. If you think that’s bullshit, remember the last time you were in love. The last time you smelled fresh coffee while observing a sunrise. The last time you met an old friend on your way home and ended up talking until 3am. Do you think these moments can be forced?

Serendipity itself can be easily ignored. It’ll then be mistaken for simple chance or for divine intervention – merely confirming our beliefs. But serendipity can take us further: It lowers our ignorance because it leads us to unexpected discoveries. It also reduces our fear: We simply don’t expect anything, but remain open to get precisely what we need.

In this sense, embracing serendipity means embracing freedom.

Join the Freedom Fighters: Flâneurs, Idlers, and other Troublemakers

Evgeny Morozov recently wrote about the “death of the cyberflâneur“. He was worried about how the modern web could lead to a “tyranny of the social”, showing us only the content that performs well with the average audience, while skipping anything weird and eclectic. If this happened, serendipitous findings would become a rarity. Freedom would be reduced.

The flâneur is a classical figure embracing serendipitous freedom: Walking on the streets of Paris until he gets lost, he will encounter surprising and unexpected freedoms – just like his modern digital sibling, the cyberflâneur.

How about the other misfits who enjoy this kind of freedom? Think of the idler who seizes a day and relaxes at the beach. He will discover new thoughts and ideas that could easily change the direction of his life.

Think of the raver who meets friends and strangers at unplanned techno parties. He will feel this freedom at 180bpm, deep inside of him.

The painter who paints just to paint;
the writer who writes just to write;
the dancer who dances just to dance: They all will experience freedom in what they do, no matter if they’re dilettantes or professionals.

Calmness and community, festivity and friendship, creativity and creation are all manifestations of freedom. And they all can be found in serendipitous ways, because they are somehow beyond our control. While they can be experienced by anyone, they cannot be forced: We can trust in finding friends, but we won’t be able to decide about their actions. We can prepare for celebrations, but we rely on serendipity to make the party great.

What You Can Do

If you’d like to explore a new side of freedom, give yourself the chance to have some serendipitous encounters:

  • Be late. Or be early. Put your alarm clock at a different time than you’re used to, and enjoy the pleasure of a slow breakfast. Or the adrenaline of a quick cold shower and a rush to your meeting.
  • Take a different route to work. And a different means of transport. Leave your car at home. Skip the subway. Instead, take the bike or walk, or ask a colleague to take you.
  • Seize a day. Bribe your doctor with a chocolate cake or tell your employers that the husband of your cousin’s sister-in-law has just passed away and you need to attend the funeral. Or be honest and tell your boss that he owes you this Monday and you won’t show up.
  • Get on the same train that you always take. But don’t get off at your usual station. Instead, drive all the way to the end of line. Walk around there for at least one hour and talk to three strangers.
  • Invite one of the strangers on a drink. Or to ride the carrousel with you. To climb on a mountain. Document your adventure with an old camera and send him the undeveloped film as a memory.
  • Buy a different newspaper. Subscribe to 10 quality blogs that are written to cater an audience you are opposed to. Visit a temple of another religion. Try to understand the point Richard Dawkins makes. Then, read the Quran or the Bible and try to understand the point the prophets make.
  • Walk with flowers. Go on a monthly adventure. Do impossible things. Join the 1% club. This is your life, so if you want freedom, dare to take it. And dare to make it.
  • Ultimately, freedom isn’t something to be taken for granted. Nor is it independent of our environment. While freedom starts in the mind, too many people are still living in conditions that don’t allow for freedom on the outside. If you’re better off, use the power you have to build a world of freedom and mutual respect: Support freedom fighters everywhere, get engaged in your community, help the people you meet during your day – be they friends or foes, colleagues or family members, casual acquaintances or total strangers. Smiles, food, political, practical, moral and financial support are all things that can contribute to bring freedom to the world.

This post was part of a series about defining freedom, organized by Mike Routen. Find the other post in the series here:

P.S. “Then there is the most dangerous risk of all– the risk of spending your life not doing what you want on the bet you can buy yourself the freedom to do it later.” — Randy Komisar, The Monk and the Riddle (A serendipitous encounter, seen here!)