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The Evolution of Freedom

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Eleanor Roosevelt famously said: "Freedom makes a huge requirement of every human being. With freedom comes responsibility."

Dear Eleanor, did you really mean responsibility? Doesn't freedom mean that I am no longer told what to do, how to think and whom to be? That I can finally choose for myself and not be bound by some external dictate? What does responsibility have to do with freedom then?

Sometimes it's helpful when contemplating big questions to step back from our current ways of thinking about them, so I decided to take an imaginary journey back in time to see if the past might give some perspective. As I had the sense that freedom existed before human beings emerged and perhaps even before life, I decided to go all the way back to the beginning...

And there I was right after the Big Bang. I came into existence quickly in the form of atoms. I wasn't experiencing much freedom then as there wasn't much I could do, hurled around this way and that, though I could interact and combine with other atoms. I may not have had much freedom, but there was a huge difference between existing and not existing! I enjoyed the freedom to be.

Much later, after a lot of mingling and morphing, I took the leap from matter to life! Don't ask me how it happened, as I was too immersed in the process to understand it. But as single-celled life, I began to discover a new degree of freedom. For the first time, I could move!

I made my way to increasingly complex life forms, discovering all kinds of new freedoms along the way. When I developed eyes, I could see where I was going, and along with my ability to hear, taste, smell, and touch, I now had so many more choices. I went through so much to reach Homo sapien sapien -- perhaps multiple reincarnations too (I don't remember now).

It started to get exciting because it wasn't just my biology that was evolving but my awareness. I could think and feel. Learning to speak, offered me all kinds of ways to explore. I gained the freedom to step beyond the confines of my animal nature, which gave me the capacity to define right and wrong and create some moral order. Then I found the freedom to step back from the limited mythical and dogmatic ideas that I had created, which gifted me with greater reason and an ever-developing capacity to pursue truth. I could now think beyond the limits of two-dimensional doctrines. As more freedom in my capacity for reason developed, I started to step outside the limited definitions of my own ethnic culture and its singular perspective, and was able to see things from different points of view. It inspired a much greater tolerance and I started to care about the rights of others, and even about the planet itself. Imagine how much I had developed, that I could now hold an awareness of the planet itself!

This was around the time I arrived back to this particular incarnation (named "Gerard") in the last century. Beginning in my mother's womb, I took a lightning-fast repeat trip through many of the stages of this 14 billion-year journey. Cells came together, and a complex life form developed with flesh and bones. I developed hands, feet, eyes, ears, mouth...and, finally, I emerged. I learned to crawl and walk, and I had the freedom to choose which direction to go -- what a delight! Sure, I was driven by some basic needs, but I also was free to just explore how my body could move and what I could do. And then...I learned to speak. It was French at first, and I now had the capacity to express what I needed, what I liked and didn't like, and how I felt, in a much fuller way. You should have seen my terrible twos -- I really enjoyed that freedom!

Just like my ancestors, I learned to step outside of my primal nature and I began to develop a sense of right and wrong. I went to school and my capacity for reason developed. I moved to different countries as a child, which instilled in me a capacity to see things from different perspectives. It gave me space from the idea that my ethnic identity was better than anyone else's.

I had a large degree of freedom to do what I wanted (within limits as I did have to go to school), and I also had the freedom to be who I wanted to be. In just two decades, I had been granted all of the degrees of freedom that had been generated over the course of billions of years.

My journey back in time had shed some light on the question of freedom and responsibility...just not in the way that I had expected.

Through that 14-billion-year journey, I could see a pattern: With each new emerging level of freedom and capacity something even greater became possible. Matter, for instance, had made it possible for life to emerge. Life led to awareness, which in turn led to higher and higher orders of self-reflective consciousness. And human beings with conscious awareness, cooperating together, made it possible to develop an increasingly evolved culture.

At every step of the way, in the drive for evolution itself, there seemed to be an inherent urgency and value for something greater to happen. And as conscious human beings who could recognize the greater possibilities ahead for ourselves, we experienced the inherent sense of urgency for these possibilities in the form of human responsibility.

In the last few thousand years, as we developed the freedom to step back from our primal nature, from our fixed and dogmatic ideas, and from our two dimensional logic and perspectives, each of these freedoms imbued individuals with a sense of responsibility.

In the last few hundred years, we developed a greater freedom to step outside the perspectives of our own ethnic culture. The impact of this on society surpassed anything we would have imagined, leading to respect for other cultures, the spread of human rights, and the least violent time in history. Many activists today carry the responsibility to keep taking that forward.

This more recent freedom to step outside of our ethnic or cultural perspectives can now serve as a foundation for an even greater level of freedom. It can allow us to step outside of the perspective of our own epoch in time, to embrace a deeper understanding of ourselves as humanity developing through history as opposed to existing only in a particular period in time.

Imagine if, as leaders of our social institutions and stewards of the future, we are able to not only step outside of the perspective of our ethnic or national identity, but we are also able to step outside the perspective of our own time in history and open ourselves to the values and perspectives of the future. This kind of openness would create an even greater capacity for freedom and human culture.

As has always been the case, the next measure of freedom rests in the hands of the people who recognize its potential.

Dear Eleanor, I'm sorry I didn't have time to drop by in my journey back in time, as I wanted to apologize for questioning your wisdom earlier. Indeed, you are right--with freedom comes great responsibility!

For more by Gerard Senehi, click here.

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