Matt Perryman

How to be free like an oak tree

By Matt Perryman

In a human body, a single living cell that acts for its own “wants” can grow out of control and threaten the whole person.

We call that cancer.

We have a word for things in nature that do whatever they feel like without limits.

It’s interesting that we don’t really have an equivalent word for cancerous behavior from human persons in the social world.

Most of us in the Western first-world nations grew up hearing that we were free peoples. Whether that is true, or ever was, I don’t know anymore.

But we sure did hear it. And many people believe it and live it.

The question is, how do you square absolute liberty with the necessary order that makes liberty possible?

Here’s what I mean.

You can give a person absolute freedom, easy: Free helicopter ride out to an uninhabited island somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. That’s freedom alright, but I doubt it’s worth much as you starve to death or worse.

That’s the ideal of freedom we’ve been sold. My freedom is maximum independence from you and everyone else.

There’s a trap here. The hint is in the cancer metaphor.

A living cell in your body acts to be the best cell it can be. Your living body, made up of those cells working together, acts to make itself the best it can be.

Cancer happens when something disturbs that natural process of growth.

Cancer breaks the rules that make life possible.

An absolutely free person breaks all the rules that make growth possible, cancer-like.

Living nature shows us that freedom means freedom to grow and develop as you are, without some jerk interfering in the process.

It also shows us how growth and development happen in complex relationships with other living things. Life-processes aren’t isolated.

Human life-processes exist in a social world that isn’t entirely biological.

We can choose to be cancer-like. We can choose to realize our potentials and those of people around us.

For beings like us, freedom means a certain kind of autonomy and independence from others.

And it means a certain pattern of necessary social relationships with others. Families, friends, towns and small communities, the local shaman or priest, all the stuff of shared culture and history.

Human freedom doesn’t mean leaving everything behind. It means realizing possibilities for growth, development, and positive change inside the borders that make life possible.

Some might even say that freedom is your effort to realize as much positive growth as you can in your own life.

As Aristotle said, freedom exists in the exercise of vital powers.

We aren’t plants, but freedom for us is a lot like the freedom of an acorn to grow into an oak tree.

Matt Perryman

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