A Life Without Constraints

The great political philosopher Edmund Burke made this insightful observation over 200 years ago: “Freedom without wisdom or responsibility is the greatest of all possible evils.” This is a very sobering statement, yet I wonder if modern people recognize the truthfulness of these words.

I have concluded that many Americans believe freedom means the absence of restraints in their lives. As long as we can follow our hearts and as long as we do not hurt anyone, this is the key to a full and happy life – to fulfill all of our yearnings and desires.

If you look around the world today, this modern view of freedom is clearly not working. It does not lead to happiness, and it never will, because this way of thinking inevitably breaks down. It leads to chaos and pain. In fact, I would say this model of freedom explains why people’s lives are not working in a progressive culture that seems to have it all.

I was recently reading Jonathan Haidt’s popular book, The Happiness Hypothesis. Haidt is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and seems to have good insight into the human condition.

In the book he speaks of Émile Durkheim, one of the  founders of sociology in the late nineteenth century. Durkheim performed a massive scholarly study, gathering data from all across Europe, studying the factors that affect the suicide rate. All of his findings can be summarized in one word; “constraints.”

He discovered that no matter how he parsed the data, people who had fewer social constraints and obligations were more likely to kill themselves. Durkheim concluded from all of his research that people need obligations and constraints to provide structure and meaning to their lives. This is what provides order and keeps out chaos.

One of the examples Durkheim gives relates to our social lives. He points out that one of the greatest obligations in life is found in marriage. In one sense, when you marry you are giving up your freedom and bringing all kinds of constraints into your life.

Durkheim’s research showed that people living alone were most likely to take their own lives, married people less, and married people with children even less.

Today marriage rates are in rapid decline because so many people do not want to be tied down and give up their freedom. In fact yesterday I read that the current marriage rate is the lowest it has been in 150 years. Durkheim concludes an ideology of extreme personal freedom can be dangerous because it encourages people to leave homes, jobs, cities, and marriages in search of personal and professional fulfillment, thereby breaking the relationships that were probably their best hope for such fulfillment,

In the New Testament, in the book of James (1:25) we find insightful words on freedom and the lack of constraints. He speaks of the person “who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom.” Yet, how could that be true, that God’s perfect law leads to our freedom? It would seem to be the opposite – that God’s law would take our freedom away from us. There are many who see God as one who desires to steal our freedom and happiness.

I would ask you to consider what James has written from a different perspective. New York City pastor Tim Keller says that sometimes you have to deliberately give up your freedom to engage in activities and thought processes that will enable you to release yourself to a richer kind of freedom. And as we look at the competing desires of our hearts, it is critical for us to discover which of our desires are liberating and which are destructive. Ultimately, we need to determine which of our desires are aligned with who we really are, and therefore, enhance our lives, and not destroy them.

In our quest for happiness, it is crucial we recognize that freedom is not a lack of restrictions; rather, it is finding the right restrictions. Freedom occurs when you discover the restrictions that are best for your being and lead to harmony, peace and joy in your life.


Richard E Simmons III is the founder and Executive Director of The Center for Executive Leadership and a best-selling author.

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