What It Means to Be Free

May 4, 2020
Clementine Assayag

Paris, France

Class of 2021

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I loathe freedom. I tried it once and it was bitter-sweet, like the taste of sour candies; it came with that tingly sensation on my tongue, as if a warning, a screaming sign that ‘acting freely’ came with a brief moment of enjoyment, but a longer-lasting, sour, uncomfortable aftertaste. I have never tasted ‘free’ in its purest, rawest form, without the bitter envy to spit it out. From a young age, I felt a dizzying pressure to embody an unachievable, Platonic conception of myself, in every conceivable domain; a sort of sickening drive to fulfill the surrounding expectations that were progressively hammering their way into my brain. I call it the ‘princess’ syndrome; Pressure to be Respectable - Intelligent - Nimble - Charming - Excellent - Skinny and make it look Simple. My obsession with fulfilling others’ expectations of me, first started manifesting itself in primary school; I was academically skilled and had an incredible ability to satisfy the teacher’s expectations of me by conforming to the archetype of the silent, assiduous, ‘first-in-class’ kid. In fact, I was so academically skilled at analyzing and copying to reproduce and confirm, that I applied this methodical procedure on other aspects of my life, where surreal expectations were not yet achieved. Loyal to the authoritarian skinny ‘princess’ anthem, I processed into controlling my metabolism’s daily caloric input; I observed my mother’s ‘health’ magazines and my aunt’s diet routines, analyses their behaviors, and reproduced. I convinced myself I didn’t need to eat the cantine’s lunches in school. I fed myself off the satisfactory impression I had of starving myself for the greater purpose: achieving the appearance that had been dictated as ‘ideal’ to me. An indoctrination or enslavement to societal expectations so extreme, I famished myself to my outmost capability, in the same way we fast, to prove our devotion and upmost submission to an all-mighty force.

I didn’t have the autonomous freedom and power to establish my own, individual desires, or life goals. I had lost control over myself and willingly handed it to a superior force. But with growing up and acquiring experience came the urge to transcend these barriers I had set for myself. I thought I would defy the limitations that came with trying to fit in a princess-sized mold; for a brief moment, I thought I would taste ‘free’, that is, the freedom from overcoming the constant oppression to conform, and freedom to speak, think, or act the way I desired. Be louder, perhaps, more boyish, or feminine, dressing up differently, discussing sensitive, perhaps inappropriate topics with others, or taking ambitious initiatives, to work towards my own aspirations and goals. But the brief, superficial enjoyment that came with feeling my most liberated or ‘free’ self, also brought a sour, tingly taste called shame, that haunted me durably. In reality, we are not free, to act or express our sincere opinions: we are constrained by other people’s judgment and immanent criticism, made so easy behind an online comment or tweet; we adapt, alter our words and behavior to attune to a ‘politically correct’ attitude and to not offend the public eye. Like a sour candy, the temporary, sweet-tasting satisfaction and exciting rush that comes from acting ‘freely’, by expressing a forthright, heartfelt, yet different thought from others, is constantly followed by an uncomfortable sensation of shame, or embarrassment, for having expressed ideas unfit to the traditional mold of societal constraints. In our lives’ most ‘liberated’ moments, such as choosing our field of studies or deciding our professional career, our ‘free’ decision to choose our lives’ own path is somehow pre-conditioned, almost pre-determined by multiple factors: gender roles, or plain stereotypes, that pollute our environment since the youngest age. And yet, at the heart of our enslaved condition, as a human being and, ‘by nature, [as] a sociable animal’, lies one unalterable liberty, that can not be taken away from us: that is, our free choice to decide how to react, or cope, with the ongoing circumstances.

Indeed, we are free captives of society: enslaved to conformism, but yet free to transcend it. Viktor E. Frankl, a philosopher, psychologist, and survivor of the Holocaust’s concentration camps describes it well: ‘The last of the human freedoms [is] to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.’ To be free means to have the ability to detach ourselves from oppressive circumstances, and to behave accordingly to our own unfeigned beliefs and values; it means to overcome the unconventional barriers, the ‘mold’, restraining us from achieving a fuller, perhaps healthier and more satisfactory, content life as individuals. But does ‘being’ free, necessarily comes with ‘feeling’ free?

Liberty to me bears a shameful savor. Sour candies taste sweet at first, but the sensation that remains after eating them is the bitter, irritating, tingly feeling of it. The criticism. The judgment. The shame. Perhaps we feel most free when we stay within the rightful limitations determined by society and don’t attempt to cross over the boundaries. Perhaps freedom is most ‘tangible’ when found in conformism and within our captive societal condition.

Clementine Assayag is a BBG from Paris, France, and is the founder of a charity organisation in China.

All views expressed on content written for The Shofar represent the opinions and thoughts of the individual authors. The author biography represents the author at the time in which they were in BBYO.

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