Stay with me on this, OK?
I want to have an open and searching conversation today — and I really hope you’ll join me! — about this idea.
How does it strike you when you hear these words:
“I’m tired of being good. Now all I want is to be free.”
Does that line thrill you, the way it thrills me? Or does it scare you? Or does it make you feel suspicious, or even angry?
I heard this line a few months ago, from a friend of mine who is — simply put — one of the most good people I know. She has spent her entire life working hard every single waking moment to be kind, responsible, loving, forgiving, understanding, self-sacrificing, loyal, honest, decent, tidy, reliable, polite, and respectable.
And she’s exhausted.
Because none of this has left her feeling FREE. Although her goodness is indisputable, her freedom remains frustratingly out of reach. She’s starting to rethink the whole game. And when I saw the look on her face as she said this line — a look of gorgeous hunger, ferocious longing — I recognized myself in her words.
I recognized in her my own hunger. I recognized my own ferocious longing. I recognized my own frustration that I am not yet as free as I wish to be…even though I know that I am a GOOD PERSON, damn it.
Here is what I want to ask you today: What would happen inside your mind if you let go (just for a moment!) of trying to be a GOOD PERSON, and you imagined instead what it would feel like to be a FREE PERSON?
Don’t panic, everyone! It’s just an exercise! You don’t have to change anything about your life today… I’m just asking you to imagine taking “good” off the table for a moment, and replacing it with “free”.
You all have limitless imaginations. Try to imagine it.
Imagine replacing “good” with “free”.
Would you have the same life? Would you make the same choices? Would you still be in the same relationships? Would you have the same job? Would you live in the same town? Would your days look like they look now? Would you feel the way you feel now?
Does this exercise make you feel thrilled and liberated and inspired? Or terrified and small? Or resentful and angry? Or some combination of them all?
I was talking about this concept the other day with my friend Glennon Doyle Melton, on the final episode of my MAGIC LESSONS podcast. We were talking about the prisons that people (especially women) put themselves into, which prevent them from living expansive and creative lives. We were talking about the burden of perfectionism, for instance, which becomes a highly polished prison, with golden bars. I quoted to her the John Steinbeck line: “Now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.” We both delighted in the liberation of that line. But then I took it a step further, and quoted my friend’s line of yearning and frustration: “I’m tired of being good. Now all I want is to be free.”
What if that’s the next step?
What if it starts with you spending years trying to be perfect, and then you give up on perfect, and just settle for being good? What if that is the first step of liberation? What if that is pretty awesome?
But what if you can go even further? What if you can move even closer to liberation? What if you gave up trying to be good, and just tried to be FREE?
I know what you’re thinking. (Or at least I think I know what you’re thinking!) You’re thinking: “What what about morality? What about ethics? What about duty?” Your mind is imagining the slippery slope that could happen, if you focused on being FREE, instead of being GOOD. Does this mean you will slide into complete decadence, selfishness, narcissism, abandon, and even evil? Did you just imagine yourself turning into Hitler?
What if it DOESN’T mean that, though?
What if you were to believe that — at the very fundament of your being — you are ALREADY good?
I’m willing to bet that you are already good. I know you guys. I know that you are all really nice, kind, generous, loving people, who would never hurt another living soul. What if we could assume that — if you decided to try to be free — you would never descend into evil, hateful, greedy, savagery? What if choosing freedom didn’t turn you into a monster, but instead turned you into a relaxed, healthy, friendly, and fully liberated human being, who trusts herself enough to create her own code of ethics?
Also, Glennon made an excellent point about goodness vs. freedom, when we talked about it on my podcast. She pointed out that society, culture, religion, and family make the decisions on a broad scale about what “good” even means. “Good” is a set of rules determined by whatever tribe you happen to belong to. Thus, within the tribe, all the “good” people will always look exactly the same. They are all following the same rules. They are all obeying the same commandments. They are all dressing in the same manner. They are all getting married around the same age, and to the correct kind of people. They are all having the correct number of children, and they are all raising those children by the same basic rules. They are all keeping their houses cleaned to the same basic standard. They are all following the same social etiquette, and giving the same percentage of their money to charity, and they are all in agreement of what a breach of “goodness” looks like.
Goodness, in other words, is always socially uniform.
But freedom, Glennon pointed out, will look different for every person.
Your idea of goodness and my idea goodness probably look exactly the same. (Nice, polite, responsible, agreeable, generous.) But my idea of freedom might look nothing like your idea of freedom. What looks like liberation to you might feel like a prison to me. What looks like total freedom to me, might look boring and weird to you.
To be seen as “good” requires that you follow the rules of your particular tribe. But to experience freedom requires that you follow the call of your own spirit.
Goodness is obedience; Freedom is self-trust.
Goodness is a bit easier (just follow the rules) but I’m not sure it leads to happiness and creativity.
Freedom is harder (sometimes you go against culture and tribe), but I have a feeling it leads to…EVERYTHING.
What if you knew that you could be free, and that your own basic human decency would remain intact?
What if you trusted yourself enough to know that you are not a sociopath, and that your compassion and empathy are innately woven within you, and that you will make no decisions that violate compassion and empathy — even as you stubbornly choose to be free?
What if you believed that your freedom might not only liberate you, but also could make others feel more free?
What if – at every big decision point in life — you did not ask, “What do the rules say that a good person would do in this situation?”, but instead asked, “What is my own truth?”
What if you dared to follow your own truth?
What if you believed the Buddha, when he said, “Enlightenment will always taste like freedom”?
What if you refused to make ANY decisions about your life that did not taste like freedom?
What if you stopped believing that martyrdom is the path to enlightenment?
What if the only thing you needed, in order to be free, was to believe in your own truth, and to trust yourself?
What if freedom healed you?
What you discovered that — for your — freedom IS goodness, because only when you are truly free can you even feel your own heart…or the hearts of others?
I don’t have any solid answers about this yet, but I’m fascinated by the question. This is the thought I am dancing with most closely in my mind right now.
I can’t stop thinking about this idea, and I’m genuinely curious to hear your feelings about it…
Be honest — what do you think?
LG (Liz Gilbert)