Pause: If you haven’t read my post about The Point of No Return, maybe hop over and do so now because it ties heavily into this post.
It’s the paradox of existential philosophy: No one can take away the freedom you have within yourself. But you are not necessarily free. People can and do exert a tremendous amount of influence and sometimes direct control over your decisions, consciously and unconsciously.
Those who have been at the point of no return know that there is a place in your soul that you can reach where you will do what your heart tells you to do, regardless of the consequences. In my case, it was breaking free of a cult. I was free and not free to do so in many different ways. It was only when I decided that the reasons that made me not free weren’t strong enough to prevent me from exercising my freedom that I was able to shake off the invisible binds that tied me down.
I’m well familiar with that place of desperation. It’s terrifying, but on some levels exhilarating because I’ve found there is more freedom in a moment of desperation than in maintaining balance.
It’s as much the problem as it is the solution.
I’m not of the Buddhist opinion that attachment is bad. I think attachment can be a beautiful motivator and protector. Attachment drives us to make something work. Within a relationship, attachment makes two people try to work through the difference of their first fight rather than walking away from each other. It’s worth it to sit through that discomfort and do that messy work because of the attachment.
Attachment becomes unhealthy, though, when it detaches us from ourselves—when we become powerless to our own attachment and thus powerless to the one to whom we are attached.
In relationship this might look like suppressing one’s own needs in pursuit of making someone else happy or (hear me out on this) submitting to abusive behavior.
I am not trying to say that those who are survivors or victims of abuse have allowed that to happen to themselves or that they have knowingly or willingly given up their power.
I am trying to say that attachment is often what keeps people in toxic situations, hoping beyond hope that things will get better. The fear of losing that attachment can be as strong as an iron cage, and toxic people exploit that attachment to undermine an individual’s autonomy.
The oft asked question, “Why didn’t she just leave?” has a complicated answer, but part of the answer, I think, comes down to “She didn’t feel free to.”
The same is true on a larger scale for groups. The process of leaving a cultic or toxic group often involves a process of recognizing that things aren’t well, trying to ignore that things aren’t well, attempting to influence change from within, experiencing the backlash of trying to change things from within, and exiting–not always in a linear order, and sometimes often repeated because leaving isn’t easy. Toxic or abusive relationships or environments hook themselves into your soul—into your hopes and dreams and ideals. That’s how they keep you there. Leaving ends up feeling like leaving yourself.
Physical restraint is certainly one way of removing someone’s freedom, but there are other ways, more subtle and more insidious. The only thing necessary to capture someone is to convince them they are captive–or worse yet, to convince them they aren’t captive but “loved.”
On the flip side, even in the most captive spaces, no one can forcefully capture a person’s mind.
And that is where the truth of the opening paradox lies.
Eleanor Roosevelt is famous for saying, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
I don’t think she was talking about conscious consent. Few of us who have ever been insulted have sat down and thought, “Gee, I think I will consent to this barb, but next time I won’t.”
What she was talking about was the power that comes with being grounded in who you are and in owning your freedoms (which comes hand in hand with owning your limitations). When you know that your mind is your own, no one can infiltrate it no matter what they might be able to do outside your body.
Freedom is not always about being able to do whatever you want. Although ideally we should all be free to conduct our lives how we see fit, even when that is not the reality—when the reality is that there are limitations on our choices—we can still have freedom in making the choice from the options before us in full clarity and autonomy.
At my point of no return, my choices were severely limited. I could stay, try to force myself to submit to more abuse. I could kill myself and exit the scene entirely. Or I could escape and try to rebuild a new life. All three were a death on one level or another.
I won’t rehash the ways in which facing suicide helped me make the hardest decision of my life. You can read about that in the other post. But I will say that owning the power I had to leave was directly tied to realizing that the things that held me back weren’t worth the price I was paying in sacrificing myself—my freedom.
I’ve learned since that the world is hard to navigate when every decision isn’t as catastrophically big, but the process repeats itself on smaller levels. I find myself going through cycles where I get attached to something—a relationship, a dream, an ideal. I throw myself into it. I either find a way of being authentic within it or I find myself becoming increasingly disempowered and controlled by it. I struggle with how to regain my power.
At some point, I realize that my power and freedom are just waiting for me to step back into myself again, which often involves letting go of my attachment, which in turn involves grieving my own hopes as much as the attachment object itself.
I don’t go all the way to the point of confronting death each time…but I think because I’ve been there, I can recognize the confrontation with symbolic death in each cycle. In a metaphorical sense, attachment is life; freedom is death. The existential concept that we are free but not free isn’t actually a paradox—it’s the life-death-life cycle. It is the cosmic balance.