Don't talk to me like you own me
It’s safe to say that the mental agitation we experience over our responsibility for our autonomy is part and parcel of what defines being human. Existential philosophers termed it angst and applied it universally to human nature. This characteristic may be equally distributed globally, but I am American and it is America’s autonomy I’m talking about. We may not put a name to the tense uneasiness, but everyone can relate to what I mean.
The manner in which we are regulated in America grants us our individual freedom. It is our freedom that precipitates our angst. Fortunately, when we acquire sufficient autonomy—not by decree but by study and practice—we have the means to modulate the intensity of this angst. Not every minute and not permanently, of course. Contingency, novelty, obstacles and freak weather should always be expected and the immediate determination of the naked animal must always be resolved. But, when we understand the whys, wherefores, rewards, boundaries, rules, penalties—all in all, the regulations—that shape the territory, our autonomous predicament becomes an exciting challenge and we’re made to be a match for it.
To manage the intensity of the unrelenting angst of self-possession, we must stop resisting the regulations stipulated by the American experiment in individual freedom. Paradoxically, but in fact, to be autonomous we must endorse the regulations—a condition of self-possession. It could be said that the regulations are America’s genius. They both rein us in and encourage us to explore the opportunity of individual freedom by creatively extending ourselves beyond authoritarian rule. My watchwords: Don’t talk to me like you own me. Ownership of myself is my most precious possession. I will not surrender it to you.
So, why do we resist these stipulations, which are impersonal? Let me use an analogy to address what I mean: baseball. Each of us knows that the rules of professional baseball apply to everyone who is on the team. No matter the temperament, personality and feelings of the contender, each must adhere to the interactive boundaries. This is true in almost all competitive situations. Moreover, almost all situations are on some level competitive. For example, all of us are aware of the metaphorical Scoreboard. Anxiously, we compete for rank and status, for mates and recognition for our gardens and taste in wine. We also compete for territory, advanced placement and scholarship, trophies and titles and “likes.”
Like professional ball players on the field, we must be realistic about the physical and emotional landscape we’re inhabiting. It’s not “anything goes” out there. Ground and behavioral rules apply. The situation can get tense. In the home, in the marketplace, on the field, we insert ourselves or are inserted by others into a role. If we do it competently, we may be appreciated or, more likely, taken for granted. If we don’t do it competently, there’s a price to pay. The key to accepting the regulative paradox is to participate in the formation and reformation of the regulations, i.e., have a voice in the matter.
In sum, individual freedom is arguably the highest achievement that human beings have ever recognized of their possibility. Yet America’s experiment does require a “fit,” that is, a fit of the living system that you are and the regulated environment into which you are set down. Indeed, we can recognize ourselves as members of a society of autonomous subjects, i.e., subject to the regulations of the most extraordinary of clubs—citizenship in the experimental nation-state that is the United States of America.
As we’ve learned from centuries of experience, though, this fit does not come automatically. Way too many of us cheat or wash out because we are unable to represent (too much angst), or won’t represent (too much resistance) the regulative authority in our own lives. Happily, now that we’ve probed the intelligibility of autonomy in America and realize that our fulfillment, satisfaction and equanimity are critically dependent on the control of our angst, we begin to find real joy in the mastery required by the experiment in individual freedom.
Subject to the responsibility for living with the choices of our own executive process, to living an original life, one of a kind and yet, as one of us, we find that life is not brought to a standstill by our angst but instead becomes a challenging adventure in originality. The adventure in originality is, of course, its own reward.
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Arnold Siegel is the founder of Autonomy and Life and the leader of its Retreat Workshops and Advanced Classes.
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