July 24, 2020

They tell us we have to “Work Hard”—but For What?


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Lately, the idea of “freedom” often comes up in my conversations, internal struggles, and discussions around the current state of America. 

Everyone has their own idea of what it means, but I’d like to share a (maybe) controversial opinion. First, let’s take a look at the definition. 

According to the Oxford definition, freedom is defined as the following:

“The power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint.” 

When I look at this definition, I find it ironic that “entitlement” and “privilege” are found to be similar words. The “without hindrance or restraint” part really gets me. When most Americans think of freedom, we think of opportunity—the ability to pursue whatever we want (career, school, business), buy whatever we want (land, business, house), say whatever we want, and (possibly) wear whatever we want.

I recognize and acknowledge that we do have a lot of freedoms here in comparison to other countries. But, I (and others, I’m sure) have found myself questioning this concept.

I have been asking questions like: 

1. Why do I need this degree to even be considered for this job?  

2. Why did I get this degree to only be making barely above minimum wage? 

3. Why is a college education so expensive? 

4. If I buy my own home, but can only have a certain amount of trees in my yard and I’m forced to mow my lawn, how is it mine? 

5. Why do I have to make hard decisions like going to see a doctor or paying my rent? 

6. Why can’t I, as a woman, walk down the street showing skin without being harassed or looked at like a sex object? 

7. Why do I make less money doing the same job as a man? 

8. Why aren’t there more people of color who are billionaires? 

The first experience where I questioned my freedom was as a young adult attending a Catholic school. We had to wear uniforms every day. 

You did have your choice of a white, long or short-sleeved shirt and navy pants, white shirt and plaid skirt (no higher than four inches above the knees), white shirt and shorts (but those were the most hideous and rarely any girls wore them), and a choice between a navy, burgundy, or grey sweatshirt with the school logo on it. 

But the only real freedom you had to be creative with your appearance was subjected to your hair, shoes, and other accessories. I understand why they instill these rules, and if I’m honest, it was a relief most days to not think about what I was going to wear and it probably, most definitely, contributes to how low maintenance I am with my outside appearance.

So here we are in school, there are rules in place, ways of being that are allowed, and ways of being that are not allowed. From a young age, we are fed various rules and ways of being. We are told what is accepted (or not) by society. Things like “Be ladylike,” “Don’t be rude,” “Sit up straight,” “Don’t eat with your mouth open,” “Stop crying,” “Boys don’t cry,” “Close your legs,” “Don’t show your skin,” “Smile,” “Be quiet,” and so much more. (I think you get the idea.) 

I’m not saying it’s wrong to have rules in place, but we have to look at how this has shaped our freedom.

By the time we are in high school, most of us enter the workforce. We enter a world of more rules, restraints, and ways of being. If you’ve ever worked customer service, retail, or the restaurant business, you probably know what I’m talking about. We are told how to dress to be “professional.” We are told how to wear our hair, speak, smile, and go above and beyond for complete strangers (who are usually rude for no reason).

We are told we have to be on time and can only get so many sick days and so much vacation time. We are subjected to boxes of race and gender on applications. We knit ourselves together on pieces of paper to be viewed not as people and what we offer, but as what we’ve done.

Shortly after, we might go to college and decide on a major of study. I remember being 18 and being asked questions like “What are you passionate about?” and “What are you going to do with your life?” 

I would often find myself responding with more questions: 

What am I passionate about?

Hell if I know. 

What am I going to do with my life? 

I have no idea. 

I remember feeling a tremendous amount of pressure to go to college—to pick something (anything) to do for the rest of my life. The idea of picking one thing gave me anxiety

How could I possibly expect to do one thing for the rest of my life? 

What if I don’t like it in two years, five years, or even 10 years from now? Then what?

Nonetheless, we pick the thing, and we do the thing.

We spend thousands of dollars doing this along the way. We graduate, and most of us have quite a bit of debt when we do. Depending on the field you go into, you may or may not struggle to pay that off.

So here we are in adulthood doing the thing.

We’re working so hard to do the thing, pay the rent, put food on the table, pay off our debt, put gas in our cars, pay for our iPhones, and maybe raise a child or two. And all at the same we try to find the time for sort of social life—enjoyment in it all. Suddenly we find ourselves with a whole lot of hindrances. We come home and turn on the TV, drink our wine, fall asleep, and wake up to do it all over again. 

Many years go by, and we wonder where the time went. We wonder about all the things we wanted to do in life. We wonder if we’ll ever go to that country, learn a new language, pick up that old hobby, or go live on an island somewhere. We wonder if we will still have time to do the things we want to do. We wonder: “Is this living?”

You also may be wondering why some people “make it,” and others don’t. 

The kicker here is that this idea of the American Dream is that you have to work hard. 

If you work hard, you can have whatever you want. If you work hard, you will be successful. 

If you work hard, you will have enough money. 

But, the truth is that we have been working hard (some of us more than others). 

Now I find myself asking the question, “How much longer?” And it’s not in a lazy-millennial kind of way that is often the narrative of my generation, but in a “Why is my worth continuing to be determined on how hard that I work?” kind of way. 

Why do we have people in this country getting richer while others get poorer?

I want to take a moment and acknowledge that some people have impossible situations that they’re dealing with and that this is not everyone’s life trajectory, of course, but I have a feeling it might be for a lot of us. Many others follow this path and don’t even question it. They say things like, “Well, I have to pay the bills,” and “This is just how it is.”

But, is this freedom?

The first time I went to Costa Rica, I was 27 years old, and it was the first time I truly felt free in my whole life. I walked around barefoot. I didn’t wear a bra. I sang whenever I wanted to. I laughed ’til I cried, and I screamed as loud as I wanted to. I slept with my doors unlocked and my windows open. I swam naked in the ocean. I watched as my teachers showed up fully alive, full of love to give, and not afraid to be in their own skin or try something new.

I heard my teacher give talks on freedom—how she wanted to own land that was truly hers. Land that she could do whatever she wanted with. She spoke about how she wanted her staff to show up as they are “Even if their tits are coming out of their shirt,” and how a “disciplined mind is a free mind.”

She spoke of corporate America and how there’s a false sense of security we’ve been given because “They could fire you tomorrow.” 

Where is the security in that? 

She spoke of being your own boss, making your own schedule, and that no one can fire you (except you).

Something clicked for me. 

Something inside me said, “Yes,” with my whole mind, body, and soul.

There are ways of being that I, plainly, do not accept in this society. And I have struggled with what that means for me. Some of it comes from a place of oppression—feeling like walls were put up in front of me that I couldn’t figure out how to break through. Some of it comes from the rebel in me, always wanting to challenge the status quo. 

Some of it comes from seeing how other parts of the world live.

Why is it radical to think that everyone should be taken care of just because they’re alive and human? Why isn’t that a good enough reason for freedom? Why aren’t we all free?

I want real, radical, raw freedom, without hindrance or restraint.

Maybe freedom lives in those small moments when you’re driving on the open road, taking your bra off at the end of the day, and yelling at people from rooftops. Or maybe it’s feeling your feet hit the sand and the ocean washing over you, dancing in your underwear, baring your soul to another human, or deciding to follow your heart.

Maybe freedom only lives in our minds.

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