The Limits of Our Freedom


Viktor Fankl, the Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, ‘Between stimulus and response there is a space, and in that space lies all our freedom.’ In the most extreme conditions of privation imaginable, Frankl discovered that he was, remarkably, free to choose his response to any situation.

I love this quote because it sums up the essence of my philosophy. I believe it is the cornerstone of a happy and effective life. A real, experiential understanding of this radical freedom is life changing, liberating and empowering. To suddenly come upon the realization that we have always been free, not in some abstract sense, but in a real, personal and imminent way, is like being let out of prison.

We are not free to control others

The point is that we are free. And so is everyone else. That means we cannot impinge on the freedom of others. This is not some moral statement. I’m not saying we should not interfere with other people’s freedom – it is simply impossible to do so. You cannot make another person do anything. Even putting a gun to someone’s head cannot make them do anything. If someone is threatened to the extent that they fear for their life, they are likely to comply with whatever is being demanded of them, but this compliance is not a result of the threat – it is still a choice they make. If you doubt it, think about the people who have been threatened and not complied – think about people who have died for what they believe in rather than comply with an external demand.

The belief that we can control and coerce others, bending them to our will, is the cause of a great deal the misery in the world. This belief, springing from the external control psychology that we have overwhelmingly been conditioned to accept, is the cause of much of our pain. To let go of our belief that we can control others is astonishingly liberating. To accept other people as they are, to make no demands on them, simply to dance our own dance, as Anthony de Mello would have put it, and to accept that we cannot but allow everyone else to do the same, is not only the only choice that makes any sense, but is also the only way we can make any difference in the world.

We have a choice

In every situation, there is a choice. Accept that we cannot control other people or try to force, coerce, manipulate and bully to get our own way. The latter course of action damages relationships and, in the end, leads to pain and dysfunction. Or, we can accept people as they are, accept they are utterly free agents, accept that we cannot force them, and concentrate instead on building relationships with them and on building the inner world which echoes back to us as our experience. When we have good relationships, things work. Perhaps not in the way we might have expected, or even in the way we would have preferred, but things will work. The world is not ours to control, so let it go, and let it work in its own miraculous way. This is the effortlessness to which Lao Tzu alluded when he wrote, ‘The world is a mysterious instrument, not meant to be handled. Those who act on it never, I notice, succeed.’

We are responsible

We are responsible for ourselves. We make our choices and then we must live with them, not blaming others or circumstances, and not cowardly abdicating responsibility to some external forces. We are not victims! We are in control.

By the same token, we are not responsible for other people. Their fear, their anger, their pain, their misery – it’s all a choice they make, as freely as we make ours, and they need to shoulder the consequences of these choices – they are not our crosses to bear. Their happiness, their success, their joy – it’s all their doing, not ours.

Being proactive

So here lies our freedom – it is inside us every moment and we can recognize it and live our lives according to the truth of this freedom, or we can continue to behave in the way we have been conditioned by society and try to force our way through life, pushing and coercing others into doing our will. One way is peace and happiness, the other way is pain and madness. Being proactive is the first of Steven Covey’s Seven Habits and is the cornerstone of a truly effective life. I believe that living a proactive life, centered in the self, accepting that we can change nothing but ourselves, and choosing to focus on the good in our life and seeking to attract more it to ourselves is the purpose of our existence.

The idea that our experience is an ‘echo’ of our inner world is a theme I will explore further in another post.

Photo byh.koppdelaney

18 thoughts on “The Limits of Our Freedom”

  1. Nice post Mark! You’ve made some strong points about freedom and control. I think it’s very helpful for us to accept that every person has it’s own will, including ourselves. Accepting this means we stop trying to control others, yet we focus more on managing our own behaviors and thinking.


  2. Mark, thanks for a clear and provocative post. What is amazing is that freedom from suffering is absolutely possible. As you say, we need to realize that we can’t control other people, so the place to look is inside at our own reactions and thought patterns. When we can come to a place of ease, meaning no resistance or emotional tailspin, anything can happen, and we are at peace. This has been my life path, and a very fruitful one, and I’m very happy when I see others speak about it.

  3. Yeah why become aggravated or upset trying to change people. But I’ve tried it and I’ve been disappointed because the person wouldn’t see it my way. But that’s selfishness on my part. I’ve learned to let go.

  4. Hi Mark.

    Good call here.

    We certainly can’t make other people do things, and others can’t make us do things. Those who fully accept this keep themselves from getting into a victim mentality. We might get negative responses if we go one way or another, but it is our choice to avoid that territory or go into it.

    When I read material like this, I think about a few folks who always bothered me with their victim mentality responses, and then I would remember things I would say that were somewhat victim-like long ago. All of our own material is under our control.

    Good call here keeping us on the right side of the perspective.

  5. Hey Mark,

    This is a wonderful post. As you have said in you post, a great deal of misery in the world is caused by the fact that many people tries to change everything and everyone around them.

    That is a form of non-acceptance, and once you go down that road, everything will needed to be changed by you, even yourself. Nothing would be good enough, not for the standards that has been established by the perfectionist mind.

    And you are right, it is a very liberating experience to just accept the fact that we do not have power over other people and things. That makes us have the mentality of acceptance, and when there is acceptance no negativity will come out from the friction of resistance.

    Thank you for this great and wonderful post Mark.


  6. Nice work Mark. I enjoy your writing and your philosophy as always.

    We are responsible for ourselves. Even if we don’t take responsibility for ourselves we’re still responsible for not taking responsibility for ourselves. It is inescapable.


  7. Excellent synopsis, Mark.

    40 years ago I stopped putting my expectations on others and I was set free to love life to MY fullest. I focused on how I was interacting with family, friends, and the world at large. I began allowing my fellow humans to live as they saw fit but was always watchful that their “stuff” did not impact my peace and happiness.

    Because of that simple change of attitude I attracted even more love and peace. Amazing!

    P.S. I am bookmarking your article to about 35 sites right now!

  8. Hi Mark .. so true – we all have choices .. we can continue on, or we can change – we can be stuck, or we can create new opportunites .. and I liked Jim DeSantis’ comment above about how he focused on his own interacting with family, friends and the world at large – and felt ok if others behaved as they did, as long as it did not interfere with his peace and happiness. Seems extremely sensible – a good choice to follow –
    Thanks – Hilary Melton-Butcher
    Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

  9. Hi Mark. You’ve touched on a lot of interesting stuff about Freedom there. If I may, I’d like to offer a little spin on Freedom I stumbled into personally over the years. Here we go. If you’ve ever read accounts of being imprisoned for a long time, you may have noticed something odd. Some folks (Nelson Mandella for instance) don’t seem to be imprisoned, even when put in jail. Somehow their Spirit remains Free. I always wondered how they managed that. Now I know why. Freedom doesn’t mean the cage (or prison) doors are opened to let us out. It means we have the Freedom to put Mind, Body, and Soul into creating life. A man in jail is Free as long as he can envision a future and tries to work his way there. He might try to dig his way out for instance or earn a degree in prison if he can’t manage to escape. Mandella envisoned his eventual release and kept aiming for it for example. A guy in a dead-end job can aspire to something else and work his way there too. Even while “incarcerated” in his poor job, he’s Free…..if he’s putting Mind, Body, and Soul into creating a better life. People in unfulfilling marriages aren’t captive. They’re free to make hard decisions to change their lives and create a new future. Freedom isn’t something outside the walls of a locked room. It’s freedom to tap into the power of life found within each of us. Men and women have always told us nobody can put our Souls in prison…..for this reason. Our souls are always Free to create life. Ciao Mark. John Duffield

  10. Thank you for sharing your views on personal freedom — I find Viktor Frankl’s quote truly beautiful. The ideas expressed in your post are very potent and thought-provoking. I agree with you in most instances, though need further time for deeper reflection. Your paragraph entitled ‘We are responsible’ is somewhat troublesome for me — while I agree that every ‘person’ is and should take complete responsibility for his/her own freedom, actions, reactions, life, etc., when in one’s life does that responsibility become actually possible? Children, from birth through age ???, are simply not able to conceptualize personal responsibility or freedom — hard-wired into an infant’s brain, and necessarily so, is the instinct to be merged with the care-giver; there is no sense of ‘self.’ As such, they can be, and much too often are, victims. Your blanket statements that “We are not victims!” and “We are in control,” while encouraging and hopeful, are too comprehensive and fail to take into account that there are true victims and that the damage caused in early development may not be able to be overcome so as to find that freedom and responsibility. Do not mistake my words as hopeless, however. Another quote I find beautiful: “Perhaps strength doesn’t reside in having never been broken, but in the courage required to grow strong in the broken places.” I’m afraid I don’t know the author of those words, but they give me great comfort and hope. In any case, thank you again for providing me with much food for thought and a forum in which to respond. :)

    1. @Lin, thanks for your comments. You are right that in such a short article one can he points you can only throw out a few ideas and skim the surface. The points you raise are worthy of discussion and reflection. In particular, the extent to which our formative experience influences our future experiences of the world, whether this limits our autonomy in any way, and the timescale over which such autonomy emerges, are very pertinent issues.

      Perhpas I will try to explore them further in another piece.

      Thanks again

  11. An excellent post. Just yesterday I wrote a similar article about personal choices and freedom through thinking on my own blog. This was a great source of encouragement and reinforcement. Thanks for sharing, and thanks to lucianop for alerting me to it.

  12. You cannot measure the influence of stimuli on your own response, which itself is only based on what you’ve been able to conclude from previous stimuli that cannot be controlled, as we are a product of our environment. Earth was here first, not us, and the stimuli it provides has been out of our control since the day we were born. Albeit telling people they are free is a good way of giving people a sense of control over their lives, but it can be dangerous for people to assume they have this unlimited power over the things that they do as it may lead to some serious disappointment and confusion.

  13. Wow Peter, that quote is very deep. At the moment I can’t even really tell whether it got me thinking so heavily because I am not native English and it first felt a little tricky, or because it’s really that deep. I believe the truth lies somewhere between these two! :) Funny!:))

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