By Tia Richardson
Freedom isn’t free. We still have to buy freedom today, and the majority of people feel that they aren’t getting a return on their investment!
I’ve been thinking about our economy a lot lately, mainly because I’m a 30-something self-employed community artist. I’m young enough to not be dependent on major healthcare expenses but shell-shocked at what I would have to pay if I were; and passionate about my work but aware enough to realize that not everyone would want to or can risk the lack of job security, medical, and financial stability that I do in my chosen career path.
I experience a great deal of freedom in my life and work. I get to choose my own hours; I have no employees and to some degree choose my clients or creative projects. Within those projects I experience freedom in creative decision making. I was born an artist with a desire to help others, and get to do both in my work. This adds a high sense of meaning and purpose to my life. I live a modest lifestyle. I have very rigorous and demanding project schedules, but I also have no dependents. If I had a family I would not be able to sustain myself both financially or energetically.
The capitalist, free-enterprise system we’ve adopted is built on a necessity of low-wage labor. It wouldn’t survive without it, and some today even feel like slaves to a lifestyle of working a job they care little about that provides them little to no meaning in life.
Many adults work two or even three part-time jobs to provide for families. Some say the poor deserve to be poor because of poor life choices. That they create their own disparities. This doesn’t reconcile with the fact that we live in a hierarchical system that feeds off of and preys on its bottom-most people in order to have the privilege of standing as the world’s elite with the highest GDP (now under threat from China).
We’ve become the biggest, most powerful nation on earth in terms of material wealth, owing that status to the work produced on the backs of slave labor, immigrant sacrifice, and now on the backs of people who have to make daily choices in favor of making a short-term buck to survive over long-term healthcare, higher education, and the pursuit of purpose and meaning in life.
This is the reality for the vast majority of Americans. How many of you can name someone who was accepted into a college or university of their choice, but had to take a lesser choice due to financial or life constraints? Who can name someone who feels like they know what their life purpose is or who has found meaning in their life? Or, who lives with their health or the health of a loved one as a daily concern because of medical burdens?
Our constitution strives to enshrine “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” as a universal decree. I would upgrade this statement to clarify: “…and the pursuit of meaning and purpose for a quality of Life.” I would assert now that our focus is and has been on a product-oriented measure of success (GDP) and I would urge us to make the shift to a person-centered measure of success. To paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr in the 60’s: “We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. …When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered”. Another person I heard speak recently, esoteric astrologer Barry Kerr, brought up the fact that we are regarding money and markets as sacred. Let’s regard people and quality of life as sacred.
Within the phrase ‘quality of life’ we can begin to find meaning or purpose driven from a deeper set of values, values that are based on universal principles that can be applied to anyone, anywhere no matter their economic status or background. We can begin to rewrite the code of ethics that drives our modern mechanical economic and cultural framework to one that supports freedom as a principle of necessity, not commodity.
‘Quality’ is defined as ‘the standard of something as measured against other things of a similar kind; the degree of excellence of something.’ I believe all human beings, at their core, want to improve something in their lives. There is a way that our current economic and financial system limits the capacity of individuals to choose what they get to improve.
I believe more and more individuals are seeking ways to better themselves and their communities, by bringing unique skill-sets and gifts to the table which fall outside of mainstream norms such as traditional full-time occupations. I know many people, myself included, who would define quality of life as being able to contribute meaningfully to a community and feel a sense of belonging to and supported by (financially or otherwise) to a larger whole. To have basic needs met. Many would love to do this full-time, but are too torn-between having a stable life financially, relationally (as care-givers or parents) and medically and creative freedom to write their lives.
Freedom is defined as ‘the state of not being imprisoned or enslaved.’ Imprisoned or enslaved by what? A Job? A medical condition? Responsibility? If everyone has a basic urge to gain awareness about something – anything, how much control do we have over whether that potential gets to unfold or not? Where does that potential come from and what limits us?
I believe there is an inner drive called Spirit, within all of us, seeking expression. I believe freedom for its expression into the world motivates us to want to change things for the better. Spirit wants to build; spirit works on behalf of the betterment of the Whole. It works for Everyone. Conditions that limit our ability to access or realize what we want to express spiritually inhibit the manifestation, in the outer world, of improved structures, such as better government, better schools and education, better economics, better structures for small businesses and everyone who wants to follow their passion in life to thrive and grow.
Not everyone wants to choose a career as a doctor, lawyer, or even successful entrepreneur making six figures a year. With that in mind, professions like teaching and so many others that earn less than $40,000 on average, are paying a high price for living in the wealthiest country, in the form of healthcare costs, educational loans, and debt.
Debt seems to drive our economy – if not professed, then in principle. If debt is at the basis of our economy, embedded in the psychological framework of our society, what then does that do to our drive to seek a better life? We constantly are in fear of the cost a better life will take. Yet the framework of our economy places it’s bet on the majority of people absorbing or assuming the risk and responsibility in favor of ‘better’ because we have no other choices currently available. It’s embedded in our history of exploitation of others to win financial and economic gain, so that now we’ve internalized that in a culture of self-exploitation. Nobody has to force us.
To be fair, I give us credit for being willing to participate in this great experiment of America by the sacrifices in life, opportunity, and freedom. For some this great sacrifice could very well have defined the meaning of life and offered a great sense of purpose, as pioneers on a great frontier that we now call a melting pot.
So how do we find our own definition of ‘better’ and seek that for ourselves and our communities? How do we do this in the midst of an ever-evolving structure which has limitations on our ability to create freedom sustainably in our lives? One way is to focus on the fact that we are still able to make choices within our circumstances. We can’t always choose what options are available to us, but nobody can take away our power to choose.
I chose not to take on additional debt in the form of student loans after my first year of college at a private art school. I wanted to study full-time, and my parents were gracious to pay what they could modestly afford to offset a partial loan that first year. The college would not allow me to re-enroll my second year when a balance was still owed, so I chose to transfer to another college rather than go into more debt. I was partially ok with this idea, trading off a focused art discipline for a more liberal arts and cultural experience.
After transferring from a second state university for the same financial reasons, I graduated from a two-year community college where the Pell Grant would cover all of my tuition every semester, studying full-time. There, I could run track, study graphic design and delve into my love of foreign language. I worked part-time as a school bus driver to offset living expenses and earn enough money to pay for a trip to Mexico with my Spanish class. Driving a school bus set the stage for my current role as an educator, and I use Spanish frequently as part of my work.
When I look back at my life choices, I always chose the path of least resistance. Somehow this opened the door for experiences that led to a more meaningful, enriching educational experience in ways I could not have imagined had I chosen a traditional path.
Traveling the road less travelled meant I actually got to experience just what I wanted in college. I got an immersive formal art experience at the first and an athletic experience running on a university track team at the second. At the third, I got a socially enriching experience of friends, language and culture at a community college where caring mentors helped lead me to my first job after graduating.
All of these experiences gave me a well-rounded sense of identity, direction and commitment. I was doing what I was interested in. I was pursuing purpose and meaning without incurring additional debt. Had I taken the straight and narrow path, I might have taken out more than $100,000 in student loans and stayed at a four-year private art school where I would have missed out on the diversity in experiences and people I got at other places.
As I think about it now, I’ve always been committed to pursuing a quality of experience in life without even knowing it. The choices I’ve made along the way reflected my desire for a particular kind of experience, not necessarily a material outcome (such as a hard-earned degree or piece of paper), though I valued those too.
Specifically, I’m aware that my desire stemmed from an internal spiritual process guided by a vague awareness that what I wanted to do in life needed to connect to a higher, or spiritual, purpose. In other words, the idea that I wanted to work for the betterment of the collective good – the question of “What can I do?” – while also growing in a spiritual understanding of the question of who I am.
This strategy, (or maybe it’s more of a flow guided by life purpose than strategy?), can say much about how we might choose to live in the world now focused on so much material gain and output. We might consider making different decisions that support a quality experience in life, decisions that support personal growth. I believe it is an inner spiritual process driven from a universal urge of unfolding awareness, which we call evolution – that makes these choices become apparent. It is an inner process which drives an outer quality experience that provides a feeling of meaning and purpose in life, rather than an outer focus in order to get meaning.
When society at large becomes aware of and accepts, appreciates and respects this inner process as the key to a quality of life, I believe we’ll see changes systemically that support more freedom of spirit. Instead of the system abusing people, or people abusing the system, it will be a structure that sees itself as a tool everyone can freely utilize in the service of their unique creative spiritual expression.
For many people the idea of a higher spirit or inner process that allows us to connect to meaning and purpose is trivial or nonessential. Other people see its value but feel powerless to let it guide their lives even though they like the idea. They may even appear to have little interest in self-improvement and choose survival. But when offered an opportunity with the appropriate measures in place, (such as prison services that are therapeutic and humane in nature), studies show significant gains in the ability of an individual to access a higher meaning. Unfortunately, the current system is not designed to allow everyone the freedom to pursue that.
We are treating freedom as a commodity; it has to be gained entry into via immigration status, class status; gender status, economic status; by virtue of the fact that someone seeking to study at a college or university of their choice may not, if they do not have the financial means. The burden of psychological debt is placed squarely on their shoulders, and this is sanctioned as what we’ve come to agree on as the price for living in a highly industrialized, wealthy country.
In truth, I believe this is because on some level we do not yet accept or know our spiritual nature as human beings. Paraphrased in his speech ‘Beyond Vietnam’, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote:
“Perhaps a new spirit is rising among us… Let us trace its movement and may our inner being be sensitive to its guidance. The call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation is in reality an all-embracing and unconditional love for all mankind. … I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the unifying principle of Life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door to ultimate reality. …Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day.”
Fortunately I believe the masses are waking up to the idea of universal love, that we are all one, and the belief in a common good. I also believe that everything as it is is helping us get to where we need to go, because of the fluid nature of the evolutionary process as humanity wakes up to its potential. For example, all of the social justice movements happening around the world now are redefining values, or concrete expressions of what unconditional love can look like.
We can only reach our potential when we act as a coordinated organism on the planet, so any system that supports the freedom to move about and make choices that align us closer to working on a cooperative scale gets everyone closer to a better world. I believe that when we’ve fully come to accept our spiritual nature then we will have achieved a true ‘revolution of values’, one where a spirit of freedom becomes the order of the day.
Everything can find liberation through love.