It’s interesting thinking about autonomy, sitting here now, in Kashmir, the whole valley curfewed, everyone confined, shut in, locked down. And it was another version of interesting when flying out of the United Kingdom a few weeks ago, just as the reality of the vote to leave the European Union began to set in.
The first, this current curfew, could be called a draconian denial of autonomy. In the case of Kashmir this rapidly becomes steeped in layers of complex regional politics and duplicity. So, let’s just leave it at the point where curfew is an action that stops people from leaving their homes, and that there is the threat of severe punishment if they do.
The second example, the ‘Out’ vote, claimed to be a bid to be unfettered from the bend-of-your-banana dictates of the EU.
The first is seen as a serious loss of autonomy, the second claimed to be a reassertion of economic independence.
But this is not about the politics of these two things. It’s a dig at both in order to look at the driving human intentions behind these two things—our human need for both freedom and also for a sense of control and order in our lives.
Life in Four Parts
If we look at our lives in four basic parts: early childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age, both the desire for autonomy and the need for control play out, continually.
For many of us our early childhood is entirely controlled by our parents. They provide safety and nurture, and they make almost all decisions on our behalf. It is this part, the decision making, that we push back against in adolescence. Whilst the teenage fug and funk isn’t exactly the best method in advocating for increasing autonomy, it is all part of that pitted road towards adulthood. The hardest bit is that, while flailing to find the way through the doom-laden teens, demanding more freedom means also being prepared to take the responsibility that goes with this great prize.
Of course most parents claim to long for obedient teenagers, but if teenagers aren’t rebelling, how can they take that first step towards adulthood, and towards that vital double act of maturity—freedom and responsibility? Teenagers are supposed to demand increasing levels of freedom whilst resisting responsibility. It’s all part of the game, almost as if this rebellion is the last chance to put off the inevitable drudge of adulthood, whilst playing pretend grown-ups.
And then, after those years of feeling constantly misunderstood and nagged, along comes real adulthood, head-butting us into its endless round of having to make choices, and then take responsibility for them as well. In the constant round of this there is, of course, a natural tendency towards wanting to have a sense of belonging, to be respected for what we do, to have a sense of control over our lives, and to feel safe within our world. Many do not conform, but the majority of us run roughly along these lines, feeling overly controlled by bosses or paymasters, and by the responsibilities that we have taken on, whilst usually feeling that we don’t have as much control over our situation as we would like.
Then comes old age, defiant in the face of the rush of time passing, pushing back against some of the controlling aspects of the long middle chunk of life. As we age we seem to need bits from the first and second stages, both control and autonomy. As we crumble we need to be taken care of, and increasingly so, and yet those who age the most resiliently seem to do so because they have been able to retain a vital sense of independence. They continue to be able to look after themselves, finding meaning and purpose in the detail that is so often missed when we are busy being younger. It can be the satisfaction of being able to manage daily life without the help of others; or still being able to nurture others, whether children, grandchildren, a dog, a prized tomato plant, the robin that comes to sit on the kitchen window sill every morning; being able to really enjoy the company of others with the luxury of time to do so; or a deepening sense of the value of life with the poignant perspective that it is beginning to run out.
I suppose we just want it all because, well, we are human—to be free to live as we wish, but with the security of feeling that we have control over our lives.
And beyond these two, a great truth, that we really have no control, but that we do have the freedom to choose to acknowledge this, to embrace it, and to control our fear of it.