Two Kinds of Freedom

They do not know you. They cannot understand. But neither do they ignore you as you wish they would.

“Why don’t you live as we do?” they ask, half-perplexedly, half-critically. 

You have two choices here: Drop your head, lower your voice, and reply meekly, “I don’t know”; or look them in the eye and say, “I don’t want to live your way.”

“Aren’t you disappointed that you don’t live as we do?” they ask, half-knowingly, half-suspiciously. 

You have two choices here: Give them the satisfaction they want and reply, “Yes, sometimes”; or shrug your shoulders and politely answer, “No, I prefer my way.”

“What do you do all day?” they ask, half-pryingly, half-mockingly.

You have two choices here: Concede to their egos and answer, “Nothing special”; or step beyond the borders of normal conversation and reply, “I search for my soul.”

In each of these cases, you answer in the first way because you hope to free yourself from their frustrating interruptions and from having to reveal your secret obsessions — and in so doing, you chain your mind to the shrunken world of their assumptions and presumptuousness. Meanwhile, if you answer in the second way, you invite their disdainful rejection and obnoxious advice — and in so doing, you free yourself from the prison of intellectual self-diminution and emotional self-denial.

In the first case, you choose the weak man’s notion of freedom — avoidance of discomfort — but the result is real spiritual hardship. In the second, you choose immediate practical hardship — the discomfort of exposure and isolation — but the result is spiritual freedom.

“Don’t you want to join us?” I was recently asked by an acquaintance when he ran across me alone after midnight in a coffeehouse that was already almost deserted. “No, I don’t,” I said.

— Franz Kafka, diary entry

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