Then What?

Then What?


Eric Fromm, a psychoanalyst popular in the 1940’s and ‘50’s, published Escape From Freedom in 1941. In his book, he deals with two different kinds of freedom: “Freedom from” and “Freedom to”.


While many of us strive for freedom from a particular bind which we want to escape, we must also consider what we will do once we are free.  We must plan for “Freedom to” even before we attain it.


Many plays and movies are based on this theme. The essence of Fromm’s concept was captured in the movie, “The Shawshank Redemption”. In the film, a prisoner wanted desperately to be released.  Eventually, after he had served his time, the gates opened and he was free.  Faced with what to do next, as he had finally attained his “Freedom from”, he had to deal with “Freedom to”. Now, he felt frightened and confused.  Like many who seek freedom, he had been so focused on “Freedom from” that he had not prepared himself for life after prison. For many long term inmates, the challenge of life after their release leaves them feeling unprepared and intimidated by their absence of direction and purpose. Soon after their release, they often commit another crime and return to prison where they feel safe.


In “The Shawshank Redemption”, the prisoner, played by James Whitmore, ultimately committed suicide because he did not know what to do with his new found freedom.


This same theme is repeated in the movie “The Reader”.  The main character, played by Kate Winslet, hangs herself on the day of her release after 25 years in prison. She had finally attained her “Freedom from” but was totally unprepared to deal with “Freedom to”. 


In my practice as I deal with angry adolescents, I see this struggle for autonomy. They express their disdain for authorities:


            I hate my parents! They are such idiots!

            My teachers are all assholes!

            School sucks!

            I can’t wait to get out of here!


They are attempting to escape their parents, their teachers and even some of their friends.


Such angry outbursts often continue until the spring of their senior year when they begin to realize that they have to deal with what to do once they graduate. Whether they are planning to go on to college or not, there will be a major change in their lives.  All of a sudden, it dawns on them that everything is going to be different. For many, this is scary. For many, this is so scary that they unconsciously sabotage their “Freedom from” by cutting classes, failing tests and not completing assignments and then trying to blame this on “senioritis”. They are attempting to bury their fears of having to deal with “Freedom to”.


Later in life, this “Freedom from” also becomes tragically evident with retirees. The average person will generally work for about 40 years with the expectation that he or she will retire to a simpler life of freedom, fun and relaxation.  They expect to have the “Freedom to” play golf, fish or pursue any of the hobbies which they enjoyed in their spare time while working.  Many retirees become disillusioned when the activities they enjoyed as a “break in the action” lose their appeal when what was fulfilling on a part time basis becomes tiresome and empty.  They find themselves asking…


            Do I have to play golf again today?

            Do I have to fish again today?

            Will everyone be upset with me if I decide not to play cards today?


Many retirees find that they become bored, listless and apathetic.   Many become despairing and depressed within a few years of not being attached to their life’s work.


After treating many retirees, I have found that the primary reason for the alarmingly high incidence of depression and suicidal ideation among that population is the absence of purpose in their lives.  They have stopped growing emotionally and intellectually. With an absence of direction and a sense that they are no longer useful, many feel that there is no longer a reason to go on living.  In therapy with depressive patients, I will invariably explore their finding Purpose.  Many of them experience a relief of their symptoms and feel great satisfaction in helping others through volunteering at hospitals, helping the homeless at food kitchens, tutoring disadvantaged, underachieving students, assisting in green cleanups and engaging in political campaigns. By interacting with others, their feelings of isolation and aloneness lift.


In one session, I asked a depressed retiree what she felt had been missing in her life.  Her immediate response was that she had never had a “college education”.  After some discussion regarding her fears of appearing stupid, she enrolled in several courses which excited and stimulated her.  It is not surprising that once she found Purpose her depression diminished dramatically.


Yet another example of the difficulties that arise from failing to consider “Freedom to” relates to Divorce.  Just as leaving familiar routines and lifestyle can cause major anxiety for adolescents and retirees, so will leaving a marriage present difficulties for those who are not prepared to deal with “Freedom to”.  Unfortunately, many who contemplate divorce fail to consider seriously the consequences of their actions.  Most are so consumed with their unhappiness that they can only focus on “Freedom from” and neglect to project themselves into their lives as a single person.  Frequently, men and women involved in the difficult steps necessary to extricate themselves from their marriages (“Freedom from”) fail to consider the emptiness, aloneness, and financial impact on their lives once the divorce has been finalized.


I have had many patients entering therapy following a divorce who, not knowing what to do with their new-found freedom, quickly enter a new relationship with someone not dissimilar from their ex.  Unfortunately, like the newly released prisoner who commits a crime and returns to jail, the newly divorced person will often find himself entering into another relationship that is destined to be disappointing.  This happens because many find security in old patterns.  Changes are so unfamiliar and frightening that they will often return to what they know rather than face the anxiety of new experiences.


The released prisoner, the graduating adolescent, the retiree and the newly divorced person are all in the same predicament because they have failed to address the profoundly basic question…


Then what?