The Fear of Freedom

How to recognise it and choose to move on.

First published in Illumination on Medium John Walter 📣Jul 21 · 7 min read

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Image by Jessica Araujo from Pixabay

Freedom is our greatest desire and our biggest fear. I now realise I have struggled with this paradox for most of my life. Now is the time to learn how to recognise it, how to identify it in whatever guise it presents itself. When we are aware of the fear stalking us, we can choose to take a different path.

“Modern man still is anxious and tempted to surrender his freedom to dictators of all kinds, or to lose it by transforming himself into a small cog in the machine, well fed, and well clothed, yet not a free man but an automaton.”
― Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom

I was a struggling jazz musician. I sat at a beautiful Steinway Grand playing a duo concert with a brilliant saxophonist. Just the two of us playing my compositions and improvising together effortlessly as we had for the last few years. One thousand people seemed to be giving us rapt attention, and their warm applause qualified this.

All thoughts of what, or how to play disappeared, my mind became an observer as my body took over, driven by spirit and connection. The saxophonist seemed similarly possessed — his hands, mouth, breath and instrument, suggesting and responding in equal measure. I imagined a thousand threads connecting us both to the audience. I felt their energy prompting us, encouraging us in our flights of freedom.

Afterwards, I floated over to the green room, luxuriating in the joy of this peak experience. We shared the view that it had felt like the audience was playing us. Like it had been a mystical encounter.

My wife, with baby in arms, greeted us with herb teas and a little adoration. The saxophonist left us to find a more exciting after-party.

That was 35 years ago, and it was the last professional jazz gig I ever played.

What happened? Ten years of grafting and learning, paying my dues in function bands two nights a week, building up a reputation and playing the jazz clubs and night clubs in the Bristol area. Here was the absolute dream gig executed beautifully to excellent reviews. What went wrong?

Recognising turning points. Did you choose freedom or safety?

Looking at it now, I see that I was afraid of the freedom of being a jazz musician. Sure it is a tough life, but it can be sustainable. My saxophonist friend went on to become a well respected international player and still tours and teaches on a global circuit.

It was fear. I transformed myself into a small cog in the machine because it felt safer. I became a teacher with a steady income and regular hours. I milked goats and flew kites with my daughter.

I don’t regret that decision. But I am now curious as to the unconscious drivers behind it.

I have had a wonderful life. Often I have felt I am living the life I love. I have run my own business and sustained a beautiful marriage throughout. I have only had short periods of feeling like a cog in a machine.

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But the decision to walk away from jazz haunts me. I am curious. I still play at a local level, and every performance is a delight. There is no diminishment in my love of the art form. I compose many tunes, but there is little outlet for the doodlings of a local piano player.

Jazz has always been associated with freedom and spontaneity.

As Herbie Hancock says:

One of the most important functions of jazz has been to encourage a hope for freedom, for people living in situations of intolerance or struggle.

So I chose to play one of the most challenging instruments, in a genre that is all about expressing freedom from limitation. I became extremely good at it, and then I gave it up!

I yearned freedom. I studied freedom, but ultimately I was afraid of freedom.

What was the root of that fear?

I remember an earlier gig in my mid-twenties, where a beautiful young woman approached me in the bar afterwards. She asked to hold my hands. She stroked them. She told me how my music had transported her into a beautiful imaginary world, and she wanted to feel the hands that could do that.

I could not take it in. I was acutely embarrassed. I tried to make light of it. I wondered what drugs she had been taking. I thought she was hitting on me, wanting something from me other than my presence at that moment. I could not accept that I had created something beautiful for another person and they valued and appreciated that. She was acknowledging me for sharing myself.

“Art should teach spirituality by showing a person a portion of himself that he would not discover otherwise.” (Bill Evans)

I wonder if that was the root of my fear. My art had given me a glimpse of myself that was too bright and too beautiful for me to bear. I had become used to a life where my creativity was a very personal thing shared with a small group of friends that I trusted.

Maybe the young woman holding my hands had seen a glimpse of my soul. Experienced something about me of which I was completely unaware. Thirty-five years ago, I was not ready to take that in. I found all manner of ways of justifying a decision to step back into the shadows.

As Marianne Williamson says in her much-quoted text:

It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us.

We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous,
talented and fabulous?

I justified leaving it all behind as a sensible decision. Making my wife and baby my priority. Being a provider for my family

“transforming himself into a small cog in the machine, well fed, and well clothed, yet not a free man”

Making a choice to step past that fear.

It is never too late. Scanning my life now for those turning points, I have identified many.

On some occasions, I have embraced the fear and taken a plunge into the risky arena of freedom. Inevitably another opportunity has soon arisen where I have taken the safer option, stepped back behind the curtain and settled for a herb tea rather than a line of coke.

It is not that I regret any of those decisions. My life has woven a beautiful web glistening with many jewels and witnessing much sadness and pain.

It is now that I choose freedom. I can identify the patterns, and I can anticipate the turning point. When I make a decision, I can notice whether it comes from a place of freedom or is more about me bolting for safety.

The questions to ask yourself.

  1. Is this, or could this be a turning point in my life?
  2. Am I drifting into safety when I could choose freedom?
  3. Could I reinterpret my anxiety about a particular choice, as excitement?
  4. Could the comfortable, natural choice just be a way of avoiding the anxiety/excitement?

How to make the choice.

I am not suggesting you should always choose the risky route. The road that fills you with anxiety could easily be a dead-end, or it could take you off the edge of the cliff. What I am saying is make an informed decision.

Notice how your physical body is responding to the choices. Find a way, through mindfulness or meditation, to listen to the yearning of your soul. Notice if your conscious mind is constantly repeating itself.

My conscious mind had a regular chorus to keep me in my safe place.

“Who do you think you are?”

“You are too big for your boots — too clever for your own good.”

“You will never make anything of yourself.”

“Your head is in the clouds.”

“You are wasting your life away.”

(If you have any others of your own I would love to hear them.)

I don’t blame the adults in my life for feeding me these snippets of constriction. I take full responsibility for allowing my mind to take them in and then for using them to make a cosy, safe nest of resistance around myself.

They are not the truth. The chatter of the mind rarely is. These are little life rafts I created for myself in my youth. I was drowning in my emotions, and I clung to anything that came along.

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Image by Luiz Antonio Toni from Pixabay

Don’t be like me and mistake these liferafts for firm ground. As a child, you needed them to survive the flood of emotions and deliver you to the mainland of adulthood. Most of us forget to leave them at the shore. We drag them around with us for years convinced they are part of us, an aspect of our identity.

Now move on.

Once you have made a choice, you still have the opportunity to reflect on that and make other choices.

Was it a compelling choice? Are you feeling excited now you have made that choice?

A straightforward test question to ask yourself is:

“Am I moving on?”

Suppose you are continually going over the reasons for your decision. You are mulling over the choice you made and justifying it all to yourself and others. Then the answer is no. You have just added another brick to the walls of your prison.

You will know when you have conquered the fear of freedom. You will not be locked in the past. You will be moving on freely into the world, following your heart and feeling excited for the present and the future.

  1. Recognise the opportunity for freedom.
  2. Make a compelling choice.
  3. Move on


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