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Freedom and Mental Health

One of the hallmarks of our country is its commitment to freedom.  Many immigrants to America came here in order to pursue religious freedom.  Much of our economic growth and success is attributed to our system of economic freedom.  We place a high premium on public education and on the opportunity for each person to become whoever they would like to be.  We don’t like social classes and encourage every person to pursue their social freedom.  The commitment in our country to freedom is one that springs from opposition to constrain.  The founders of our country sought religious freedom because of European religious intolerance.  We favored economic freedom because we suffered under the English monopoly, mercantile system.  The desire for social freedom comes in part from rejection of the English class system.  The expansiveness of our country is itself a geography of freedom.

Just as freedom is the American dream in so many areas of life, freedom is extremely important for good mental health.  Good mental health is characterized by having personal freedom – to be free to make good choices for one’s self and others.  Understanding how the concept of freedom is important to good mental health begins with an awareness that freedom is itself a relative concept.  Without government, political freedom would be anarchy.  Without securities regulations and anti-trust laws, economic freedom would lead to the kind of concentration of economic power and monopolies that the goal of economic freedom seeks to avoid.  In other words, the pursuit of freedom is always its un-doing unless the freedom is exercised within certain limits.  All exercises of freedom paradoxically operate within some restraint if they are to achieve their goal of freedom.  And, it is the nature of the form that actually encourages greater freedom.  One example would be that of a poet writing in a certain form of verse – say, a form that requires a particular rhyme scheme.  Interestingly, having this limitation can end up making the process of writing more creative and, in that sense, freer.  The container for freedom is what stimulates the kind of creativity which is going to produce more freedom.

When it comes to good mental health, too much unrestrained emphasis on freedom can become an opportunity for risk-taking and shortsightedness.  This means that it is important for each of us to look at the containers we have in our lives which encourage or discourage the exercise of our emotional freedom and our ability to make choices.  Certain kinds of containers are going to make us more emotionally creative and freer, and give us more joyful lives.  Other kinds of containers are going to do just the opposite, and keep us stuck in addictive and self-defeating patterns.  And, no container at all leads to anarchy.  A person with an inadequate emotional container is going to have an immune system that is much more likely to develop various kinds of symptoms under stress.

For example, if one has to come home every night and have two or three drinks of alcohol to feel okay, one’s conduct is going to be very limited.  There will be little freedom in this container.  Not only is there not much freedom; there is not much choice.  Similarly, if one goes to work every day, engages in a work routine which is dispiriting and which over time seems to cause a depression, then one has designed a container with little opportunity for emotional freedom.

There are various kinds of containers that serve good emotional health.  These fall into two categories: individual and community.  Good individual containers are those which allow one to make good emotional decisions based on true choices as opposed to choices based on old family scripts, addictive processes, or negative conditioned patterns of learning.  Ultimately, the goal for the personal mental health container is to be a container where one can have real desires in one’s life without having them become obsessions – where one can enjoy one’s work as a lawyer out of the desire to be a good lawyer without becoming a workaholic.  Or, where one can enjoy one’s social life and the opportunity to meet and be with friends and meet new people without becoming dependent upon alcohol in order to do this.

Let’s look then at some of the containers that might allow a freer emotional life to be led.  All the mental health literature shows that people who have a faith and go to church or temple live longer.  Survey data shows that people, who have a religious and/or spiritual life, enjoy life more than those who do not.  It’s pretty clear that having a religious and spiritual life is a good container.  It may seem, on the one hand, that it is a restriction in that it might inhibit certain types of conduct, but the reality is that having the support of a religious community is more likely to allow us to feel supported enough to pursue what we are really passionate about in our lives, to actually be able to be aware that we have the freedom to make choices and to make choices freely.

I grew up and attended school during the 60s and 70s at a time when there was much rejection of form.  The principal reason articulated behind the rejection of social formalities, was that one needed to be authentic.  It’s pretty easy to see now how self-centeredness this reasoning is.  And of course, the outer form of any kind of social formality is always subject to the criticism of not being authentic.  But that, in part, is just its purpose.  Its purpose is to create a civilized outer container, which can be the vehicle for inner sincerity and greater consciousness.  The form of the container is not the end in itself, but a potential vehicle to allow for the growth of greater qualities of individual and social well-being.

In our social and legal community, we see that there are certain containers which may at first blush seem to restrict freedom, but in essence, actually provide the opportunity for greater freedom.  One of these would be participation in organized Bar activities.  In this container, one may feel that one’s freedom is somewhat restricted.  It may be difficult to enjoy the social and educational and professional opportunities of service to the Bar, and at the same time, act in ways which are discourteous to other lawyers.  But, this is not really a restriction of freedom as much as an opportunity for a creative way of learning to balance the aggressiveness of the adversary system with the need for social cohesiveness.    The container is one that encourages civility.  There is actually more freedom in this container than there would be in the opportunity just to act out as an aggressive, take-no-prisoners, style lawyer.

What happens in the best of circumstances is that form never takes precedent over substance, but the form itself gives the opportunity for richer experiences of friendship to develop, and for greater understanding to develop between advocates on different sides of issues.  There is actually more freedom.  There are more choices, not fewer, to be made by an individual within the container than one who has chosen not to participate.  Such containers also provide a greater opportunity for good mental health which comes with establishing deeper and richer, and more profound friendships.  The proper containers for us as professionals can soften our egos and introduce a real quality of refinement in our relationships.

Oftentimes, the root cause for people who suffer from mental health or addictions problems is the fact that they have pursued a reckless freedom that has been their undoing.  They have sought freedom through alcohol or drugs, or by failing to get help for their mental health disorder, and found anarchy.  Their own, often disease-driven, egos have prevented them from becoming part of containers which will actually give them the greatest choices for freedom in their lives.  You may feel that participating in the religious or spiritual tradition of your choice, or going to a 12-step group, or serving in a Bar professional organization are restrictions on your freedom.  The reality may actually be that they give you the greatest choices in your life to be emotionally healthy and put you in the best position to make good mentally healthy choices for yourself, your families, and others.

– by Don Carroll

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