The “F” Word

December 2023

There has never been a problem of such overwhelming importance as the issue of freedom. All throughout history, people and nations have fought violently for their freedoms even though freedom’s definition has always been roughly defined and the ideas surrounding it poorly executed.

The greatest story ever told is actually a quaint, little children’s novel called The Wind In The Willows, written by the hand of Kenneth Grahame in 1908. The book chronicles the camaraderie and good friendship between four country animals anthropomorphized to behave like humans; the wise Badger, the cultured Rat, the insecure Mole, and the exasperating Toad of Toad Hall. Together, these critters form an unforgettable group of personalities whose heartwarming stories are all made possible through the luxury of not having to work for a living.

To read of these well-to-do creatures, sauntering through life as they saw fit, is to feel a deep envy towards their idleness and capacity to fit much more living, and thus much more freedom, into a single lifespan than the hunched over, worker bees of humankind. Too few of us can mimic Mole and Rat kicking back on a pair of armchairs in front of a warm fireplace, toasting to unconstrained independence with bits of poetry and mild-mannered conversation without so much of a care for what day of the week it even was.

The Wind in the Willows, Mole and Rat kicking back on a pair of arm chairs in front of a warm fireplace.

Mole and Rat kicking back on a pair of arm chairs in front of a warm fireplace, toasting to their unconstrained independence.The Wind in the Willows

Their sense of time must be so warped and so twisted from living so large and so freely that all their days melt together in such a way that it becomes hard to tell where one day ends and the next begins. To them, every day must feel like Saturday; to stay up as late as one would like and not wake until they were good and ready. Oh, how wonderful that would be! The days would seem brighter, the food sweeter, the air fresher, and the slumbers more peaceful if every day were Saturday.

These animals of the Wild Wood and surrounding countryside exist in life’s sweet spot, the here and now. They live in the moment, only for today, without being chained to the idea of a better life that existed someplace in their youth or preoccupied with a tomorrow that never comes. These small animals have no “real world” struggles. They know not the toil of having to work for a living, to submit themselves to the regiment, bureaucracies, and other nuisances that never cease in pushing, pulling, and tormenting their small minds into such a sorrowful state that fries their nerves and pulls out their hair.

One might ask how these animals could go on enjoying themselves without providing any real service to the world? How did they sustain their luxuries and pleasures for the finer things in life? The only sensible explanation is through the inheritance of great wealth.

Some past relation had accumulated such a great sum of money to have lasted so long as to support generations of their kin. And let’s not forget that wealth generates wealth. With even the simplest of investments, these animals could go on supporting themselves by the interest generated from their assets, and, so long as their living habits remained the same, their descendants would continue prospering from the same family tradition as well. Hardly seems fair, does it?

The Wind in the Willows, Money is what provided Mole, and Rat, and Badger, and Toad with so much leisure time.

Money is what provided Mole, and Rat, and Badger, and Toad with so much leisure time that they could go messing about in boats any time they wished.The Wind in the Willows

Of course, it’s only natural to lament over the prosperity of others when we hold own lives against them. It always seemed like we got the short end of the stick. We never made as much money as we hoped, our careers never blossomed as we expected, our organizations sidelined us from achieving anything substantial, our dreams neglected or forgotten because having to work for a living has always left us too anxious, too tired, or too burned out at the end of the day to do anything about them.

But the lack of financial advancement is where it really hurts, especially when we understand what money actually is and what it can do for us.

What is money?

A video bearing the title “Using his Wells Fargo account to pick up girls” was posted on YouTube sometime in 2021. As you might think, the video does depict a random guy at a bar trying to arouse the interest of a lady by showing her how much money he had in his bank account.

With smartphone in hand, the young lad opens up the bank’s mobile app and presents his financial worth to a nearby female in the same way a proud parent might show off photographs of their children to new acquaintances. The camera zooms in and we see the account balance of $92,802.64. The girl is unaffected by such a dowry, even becoming offended, and she replies, “You really think that’s going to impress me? [Your] money doesn’t fucking impress me.”

Sure, the guy has more money than the average person, but it’s certainly not enough to be proud of. In this day and age, $92k is just padding. It’s the funds you use if you lost your job, or needed to buy a new vehicle, or had minor medical bills to pay, or a friend in need of a loan. It’s not enough wealth to buy a house outright, or a supercar, or a private jet. You can’t retire. You could buy part of an education, or do repairs to an existing home, and other small things, but not much else.

Of course, if the account balance had several more zeros attached to the end, to the tune of $10 or $100 million, his behavior would’ve made much more sense, and flaunting it around would’ve certainly aroused more affection from the ladies because of what those deep pockets represent.

With millions of dollars, you no longer have to suffer the life of a non-playable character (NPC). You can now live like a king. You can buy all sorts of things, the extravagant home with more rooms than you know what to do with, an ivy-league education, delicious food from gourmet chefs, brand-name clothing, quality goods and services, and all kinds of other stuff that normal people wouldn’t even consider. Because who doesn’t like stuff?

Only boys that save their pennies make my rainy day. ‘Cause we’re living in a material world. And I am a material girl.Madonna, the Queen of Pop

But it’s not just our obsession with materialism that money provides us with but life experiences as well. You get to play golf at Pebble Beach in California, attend an ashram in India, swim along the shores of Australia’s Gold Coast, go on an ayahuasca retreat in Peru, take photos of blue-footed booby birds in the Galápagos Islands, ride a camel around the Great Pyramids of Giza, become a tourist in outer space; you can literally do anything.

With enough money, you don’t even have to work, obeying civil and criminal law becomes optional, and snorting cocaine off a hooker’s ass becomes reality. It’s unbelievably amazing how this entirely made up thing we call “money” is the universal passport for living a full and free life.

In a world where we don’t get to choose our lives but are forced to be square pegs in round holes, the allure of financial freedom tugs on the soul harder than any other honorable mention. We participate in a society where money has become the physical manifestation of freedom itself, and the more you have of it, the more free you are. Money is the freedom to do and the freedom to live. It’s the freedom to exist exactly as the person you always wanted to be. That’s why people are so hellbent on accumulating more of it.

The Wind in the Willows: money allowed Toad to exist exactly as the person he always wanted to be.

Money allowed Toad to exist exactly as the person he always wanted to be.The Wind in the Willows

We do everything we can to get ahead. We pinch and save, beg and borrow, scheme and steal. We commit any number of questionable acts in order to increase our freedom, because freedom is the ultimate object of human desire. When we see others with more freedom than we have, we burn with jealousy and curse our place in life, and we wish we had made different life decisions in the past that would have resulted in our having more freedom today.

But the grim truth is this: we will never have as much freedom as we want, or deserve. The idealistic freedom we read about in Kenneth Grahame’s book is a sweet fantasy that’s out of reach for the 99% of us. So toughen up you little bitch, pull up your trousers, and find some middle ground you can work towards instead.

On Being Practically Free

There has never been a problem of such overwhelming importance as the issue of freedom. All throughout history, people and nations have fought violently for their freedoms even though freedom’s definition has always been roughly defined and the ideas surrounding it poorly executed. The Oxford dictionary describes freedom as, “the power or right to do or say what you want without anyone stopping you.” But that viewpoint completely ignores the fact that we are mostly, or pretty much entirely, shaped by our life experiences and that every individual is governed by numerous ideological, social, economic, political, and psychological forces that we really have no control over.

The compulsive urge to say and do whatever we want is heavily influenced by our culture, society, and place in time. We are marionettes to the people and culture we belong to, irregardless of how much money we have to do the things we want to do. So where is the freedom in that? We are not autonomous agents who get to choose their own destiny but are the end result of an end result of an end result… There has to be a better way to think about freedom.

In 1940, Ruth Nanda Anshen edited a collection of essays in a book titled, Freedom: Its Meaning. The volume of work brought together some of the greatest thinkers and philosophers of the early 20th century, such as Bertrand Russell, Thomas Mann, and John Dewey, who discussed the topic of freedom from their differing perspectives.

Found within those 680 pages of intellectual discourse is a very short 2.5-page commentary by Albert Einstein. He liked to keep things short and simple. Einstein acknowledged the fact that any debate regarding fundamental value judgements was hopeless because no one person can refute another’s viewpoint based solely on rational grounds, regardless of what that viewpoint may be, because all viewpoints are based on rational thought in the first place.

Instead, he defined two generalized goals that we should throw our attention on:

  1. Those instrumental goods which should serve to maintain the life and health of all human beings should be produced by the least possible labor of all.
  2. The satisfaction of physical needs is indeed the indispensable precondition of a satisfactory existence, but in itself it is not enough. In order to be content, men must also have the possibility of developing their intellectual and artistic powers to whatever extent accords with their personal characteristics and abilities.

First, we have basic human needs that every individual requires in order to survive. You can think of these as our outer freedoms, or physical needs; clothing, food, water, shelter, and so on. Second are the inward freedoms, or non-physical needs; the scholarly or creative endeavors that give our lives a sense of meaning and purpose.

How can we mimic the lives of Ratty and Mole and live a freer existence?

How can we mimic the lives of Ratty and Mole and live a freer existence?The Wind in the Willows

A balance must be struck between the work that builds and sustains a quality of life and the leisurely activities that allow us to pursue our higher interests. We should not have to spend excessive effort just to stay afloat if we have neither the time nor the strength to cultivate our inner character, but this is a major problem in the modern world.

So much time and effort is wasted on our physical needs—housing and transportation especially—that little or nothing is left to spend on personal growth. This imbalance deprives us of the feeling of being free. People may not be slaves in the traditional sense, but they have as much time for self-care as if they were.

Without opportunities for personal growth our interests and inner talents decay from lack of nourishment, which leads to a mental disintegration in the same way physical starvation leads to death.

If you wish to be free, or to live a freer existence, find balance between your inner and outer needs. Reorganize your life and priorities so you can achieve your intellectual and artistic potential. Only in this way can we live with the mildest sense of being free.