In Search of Freedom in the Time of the Pandemic

by Fernando Perfas

The lockdown and various mitigations employed by the government to slow virus spread have been restrictive. Compliance to such intrusive strategies is driven mostly by fear not only of penalties but more importantly getting infected by the virus.  We grudgingly comply with stay at home, social distancing, masks in public places, and even compulsive hand washing guidelines from the medical experts. Our natural drive for civil liberties and personal freedom are tempered by the magnitude of the health and economic disasters that the pandemic leaves in its wake. Despite the devastation wreaked by the invisible invader amidst us, some are adamant in their unwillingness to heed the warning of more serious consequences should the mitigations put in place are ignored or lifted too soon.  After weeks of living under this highly restrictive environment, many begin to experience the itch to go back to how it used to be, the normal. After watching the incredible loss of lives and the panic among the mounting numbers of those infected, we have become immune to the risks and the clamor for freedom of movement has become louder.

Our natural drive for civil liberties and personal freedom are tempered by the magnitude of the health and economic disasters that the pandemic leaves in its wake.

The respite from the usual hubbub of daily life and the unprecedented pause caused by the pandemic has offered time for self-reflection. As we grapple with an uncommon reality of intrusive restrictions and curtailment of freedom, we go through a state of cognitive dissonance of having to choose between personal freedom and the risk of dying from the virus. The much ballyhoo we place on freedom has come into question when an individual action could have multiple ripple effects and dire consequences.

Our mind responds to multitudes of competing urges, all of which demand our attention and with a sense of urgency.”

This is the question, is it morally acceptable to exercise individual freedom knowing such risks? Conversely, is it acceptable to curtail individual freedom if the exercise of which may cause greatest harm to others? We can debate the issue ad nauseam but the discussion will remain superficial and would never touch the deep core of what constitutes real freedom.   

Let’s take the discussion of freedom to another level which hopefully provides another perspective. From a psychological stand point I pose this question, are we really free? How much do we understand of what drives our action, our innermost source of motivation when trying to act on our urges? How much control do we have of our mind which influences our feelings and eventually our actions? If I ask you to close your eyes and take charge of your mind by focusing your attention on only one thing, which is to be present in the moment without thoughts of the past or the future, what happens next? We immediately realize it’s almost an impossible task.

Our mind is like a rider-less horse taking us for a wild ride. If we are truly free we should be in full control of what happens in our mind, the flow of our thoughts. But this is not the case. Our mind responds to multitudes of competing urges, all of which demand our attention and with a sense of urgency. This process is ongoing in our waking life and even in sleep. As we do not exert total control of much of our thoughts, we do not control the contents of our dreams. We can classify the urges that demand attention during our waking life. The most pressing are those that concern our survival or threats to it. These are expressed in our fears or sources of anxiety. Some involve our desires and longings. Others are ongoing and unresolved issues that stem from past experiences.

We are all familiar with moments when we lose our cool or when our temper flares that lead us to do or say things to people that we later regret. Another is succumbing to our compulsions and doing things which we realize are against our better judgment.

We can sum up the underlying feelings involve in all these into either aversion or attachment. Our conscious mind deceives us into thinking that we are in control of our thoughts when in fact so much more are happening in our consciousness that we are not aware of and often have no control of. How much of our unconscious motivations determine which and how we respond to our competing urges? We are all familiar with moments when we lose our cool or when our temper flares that lead us to do or say things to people that we later regret. Another is succumbing to our compulsions and doing things which we realize are against our better judgment.

So my question is, where is freedom in this tyranny of what goes on in the mind? When we demand for our rights and the exercise of personal freedom in this time of the pandemic, it may serve us well to be more self-reflective, lest we trample on the rights and personal freedom of others. Ironically, the only means to liberate ourselves from the bondage of our mind and achieve real freedom is to use the mind to deepen our self-awareness.   

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 (The Philippine Daily Mirror welcomes FERNANDO B. PERFAS as a regular columnist. An author of four books on addiction, he has a doctoral degree in Social Policy and Administration. He is from upstate New York and is a consultant in addiction treatment in several countries. He was a columnist of International Tribune, an English language weekly newspaper published in New York from 2006-2009.)                   

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