Freedom is a Pain in the Ass

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I was schlepping around Pak n Save the other day. (when I say schlepping I really mean luxuriating, because I’m one of those people that gets a kick out of dawdling and reading labels in supermarkets.)

There is always a mental micro moment when I reach THE BANANAS.

They come in two varieties: $2.99 (or much less when they’re on special) for normal bananas, and $4 for fair trade bananas.  The cheaper bananas make up 80% of the total banana display.

Because I have enough cash, I am free to choose either option of banana. Let’s call them the ‘not fair’ bananas or the ‘fair’ bananas.  Part of me would rather just get the unfair bananas because they’re pretty much the same product.  (although the fairtrade bunch come wearing a nice sash around the middle.)

As I approach, other people are gaily reaching for the normal bananas.  Casually and surely they are putting these bananas into their trolleys, humming a tune, then sailing off again, looking for the next thing on their list.

But I feel an annoying spasm. I feel duty bound to buy the fair bananas.  I don’t want to be the person who blatantly does not give a rats about farmers trying to survive in Ecuador.

I’m not asking for a knighthood for buying Fairtrade bananas.  Trust me, there is no self-congratulation or glowing do-good feeling over such a laughably minor purchase.  After all, fairness should be the baseline rather than the rewarded exception.  There’s also the unpleasant reminder that there are real, physical people producing the products that supply the supermarket giants.  They have laboured to produce this stuff and I really have no idea how many of them are getting screwed over. It’s unsettling.

Yet each time I buy bananas I have to make that choice.  The choice I usually make is to avoid being a blind eye turner in that one moment, while having a tiny frugal pang of regret that I didn’t pay less for something when I easily could have.

This small internal banana conflict points to something bigger.  It’s one reason why I suspect more people aren’t fighting for more financial or mental freedom, more free time, or more personal choices.

Here’s the thing: Genuine personal freedom might be one of the so called highest aims of humankind – but it is also a considerable pain in the butt.

At existential paradoxical moments like this, let’s light a stuffed pipe, and turn to Freud:

”Most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility.”

If you’re responsible then you’re writing the menu.  You risk bad reviews, food poisoning and failure.

If you’re responsible then you can screw it up.  You can get blamed.  There is no previous track record to refer to.  It’s daunting.

On the other hand, there are lots of great things about not being free:

-You can blame your situation on somebody else in a very satisfying way.

-You can relax and follow pre-made instructions without having to think about it.

-If the instructions are ultimately wrong, then at least you didn’t come up with them yourself. (get to blame someone else again- woohoo!)

-You get to stay ignorant about the depths of your conformity so you’ll never really know how controlled you are by outside forces.  Ignorance is bliss……

-It’s nice to be in the same boat as lots of other people.  Subscribing to the same ethos, rules and beliefs creates a tribe which establishes a general feeling of normal-ness.  People love that feeling.

-The less freedom you have, the fewer choices you have to make, which is a relief because making decisions is exhausting.

-You can leave awkward stuff like ethics, social justice, to whoever’s in charge, cos you’re too busy keeping your head down and making a living.

-You don’t have to deliberate over bunches of bananas in the supermarket.  If you can’t afford to be ethical – then the argument is entirely off the table.  No one is going to give you a hard time for buying the only bananas you can afford.

If you haven’t heard David Foster Wallace making a commencement speech to the Kenyon College class of 2005 then I highly recommend it.   This bit especially:

“The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able to truly care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day”

If you use cheap bananas as a metaphor for the millions of choices we make in our minds and with our actions every day, then it starts to become obvious why freedom might not seem so shiny anymore…..

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