Gerry Spence on Freedom

One of my favorite writers is Wyoming trial lawyer Gerry Spence, best known for his work on the Karen Silkwood case that was made into the film, Silkwood. I enjoyed Seven Simple Steps to Personal Freedom: An Owner’s Manual for Life, excerpted below.

As I look back, the most fortunate events in my life, although deeply painful, were the rejections I suffered. They proved to be immensely liberating gifts. I shudder to think what would have been my fate had I become a congressman or a professor or a judge. Had any taken me—the voters, the dean, the governor—I would surely have been irretrievably enslaved. Had I been elected to Congress, I would have become enslaved to backroom politicians, to corporate money, and to the fear that one day my decisions might not be pleasing to the voters, without regard to whether or not they might be pleasing to me. One can only imagine the stultifying environment of a law professor in a small Wyoming law school. And imagine the likes of me sitting on the bench as a judge enslaved to the structured life and mentality of the sitting jurist. All along what I failed to recognize were the forces that had always been at work within. Though I had been born into slavery and taught to follow the rules of a good slave, I had an irresistible longing to be free. Certainly it would be expected that one who had suffered so much rejection during his lifetime might have learned along the way to conform, to make himself more agreeable, to become less offensive, less intimidating, less outspoken, less spontaneous, more predictable, and more structured. I had not yet understood that freedom finally meant I must take myself, accept myself, own myself, be myself, value myself, discover myself, nurture myself, and reject all that violates, imprisons, diminishes, or tends to capture the self. I had not yet learned that, in the end, we are our own slave masters.

***

On the underside of freedom lurks the sense that we are as puny as a particle of dust at sea. We stay imprisoned in bad marriages because we are afraid to be alone. We endure every manner of indignity and outrage, every agony and tedium, because we are afraid—afraid to throw off the traces and experience the naked terror that so dominates the idea of freedom. We kiss our shackles. We stay at home with the old folks, or never leave the farm or the neighborhood. We linger on in daddy’s business or hang on to the old job until we have worn a track around it like the knee-deep trail of the old gristmill horse, because we are too frightened to march out into the wilderness alone.

***

I remember when one simply bought one’s ticket and hopped on the airplane. Today we have constructed new cages in old zoos. Today we are terrorized by terrorists. Yet there are probably no more than a few score people in the entire nation whose madness would cause them to plot the willful destruction of hundreds of innocent passengers. As a consequence, these few, whoever they might be, control 260 million people. Today we take it as an unquestioned part of travel, as the way of things, that we must identify ourselves with an official picture identification—the precursor of tattoos on our wrists. Today we accept as the way of things that our bodies must be searched mechanically, that our luggage must be inspected, that once aboard, we must behave in numerous purposeless ways that have little or nothing to do with our safety but control us perfectly like cattle run through the chutes. We know that if someone wants to manufacture a bomb and blow up the plane and its passengers, all of the endless procedures we have endured will have proven to be only the known landscape over which any terrorist can travel with ease.

***

Slavery provides a special kind of security—security from making one’s own decisions, security from thinking for one’s self, security from being responsible for one’s acts, and security from experiencing one’s life. A strange security persists—the security against being free. Only the dead are utterly secure. The struggle between freedom and security is eternal. The American colonists, by wresting their liberty from the king, gave up the security of his protection, of his armies and his powerful navy. They gave up the security of his laws, and of his exchequer. Yet there is no security under the yoke. The chicken in the chicken house is not secure. Saved from the coyote, the chicken will be eaten by the farmer.

***

It’s especially telling how young people, today, deal with their debts. So many debtors just seem okay about it. No one, of course, likes his or her debt, and everyone, of course, wants it gone, but among many debtors there is a curious lack of urgency. They exhibit an almost brazen indifference about owing tens of thousands of dollars, or going into forbearance, or having hundreds of dollars taken from their monthly incomes. Most are fine with going on the twenty-year repayment plan, as if nothing was at stake. They thought of their debt as some annoying, inevitable bill like car insurance, not the steel bars that kept them confined to lives of everlasting obligation.

***

The worker who seeks security cannot exhibit the free mind necessary to spring ahead on his own. He requires an overseer, a time clock, rules of work, rules of vacations, rules of sick leave, rules about having babies, rules about rules. He requires laws to protect him, and commissions to hear his complaints and representatives to represent him. It takes endless paper and energy, and the ugly wrestling deadens the spirit of both master and slave and leaves them both weary and both full of hate.

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