Free Or Not Free
I remember in my childhood hours sitting on the floor of my bedroom, gazing out the window.
I wanted to play outside. But, according to the adults, it wasn’t “safe”.
I also remember being squeezed like canned tuna with 40 other kids in a teacher’s living room, 3 times a week after school, learning more about the things I disliked.
I wanted to learn the piano or learn dancing or read comic books. But, according to the adults, they weren’t “practical”.
I pictured myself as a bird in a cage. I desperately wanted to fly.
That’s how the desire for freedom built up inside me.
And with it, the escape began.
One day, feeling so dull, I put my head in the space between the curvy iron bars of the bedroom window.
My head fitted through. If the head got out, the butt would. I wiggled and struggled to contort my body. Eventually, my butt did get out. Then my full body! I was outside! And no one saw!
My first escape was a victory!
I spent a few hours roaming the neighborhood, read comic books at a bookstore.
Of course, I never told my parents about it.
And of course, I didn’t stop there.
I got better and better at the “window-break.”
When I out-grew the space between the window bars, I stole keys. I climbed walls. I had dozens of tricks to escape.
I wasn’t happy at home or at school. I wasn’t happy when I was alone or when I was with others.
Reality was broken for me.
I found escape in comic books, movies, video games, travels, men, sex, work, and even spiritual practices.
I became a master escaper.
My desire for freedom led me to a point when I have my own business - no one to tell me what to do. I lived abroad, far away from my parents - their complaints and control. I got married to a man who cheered me on in whatever I choose to do.
My life looked like total freedom.
But something was missing. I just couldn’t figure out what it was.
Until one Sunday morning, out of the blue, I burst out of my office screaming “I hate my work!”
The following Monday, as I sat down on my desk, I felt dread and angst bleeding out of my neck. I just couldn’t do any work.
I stood up. I walked around the living room. I petted my cat. I lied down on the couch. “Maybe a nap would fix this,” I thought. So I fell asleep.
An hour later, I woke up. I opened the fridge, stuffed in my mouth two giant cubes of ginger chocolate. I stood protractedly in the kitchen. I was going mad.
I took my clothes off and got into the shower.
The water rained down on me. I noticed a big black hole inside my chest.
I squatted down on the bathroom floor.
From the pit of my stomach, I let out a scream.
When epiphany hits you, it hits you hard.
At that moment with my tears streaming down on my knees, I realized.
I was not free.
I had a life that looked like freedom but didn’t feel like freedom.
I’d been seeking freedom in the wrong places.
I started questioning what I knew.
Maybe freedom isn’t what I thought it was.
A few days later, a quote by philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre came back to me. I had read this quote many years ago but never fully understood.
“There are two ways to go to the gas chamber: free or not free.”
The gas chamber is an airtight room that can be filled with poisonous gas. During the Second World War, it was used to kill prisoners in Nazi concentration camps.
Through Victor Frankl's Man’s Search for Meaning, I learned about the unspeakable horrors that concentration camp’s prisoners had to endure.
And yet, in their last walk to the gas chamber, they could still have a chance at freedom.
This turned my brain upside down.
Everything I knew about freedom was wrong.
Freedom cannot be found in escape.
Freedom is found from within.
Freedom isn’t something far away that we must hustle to pursue.
Freedom is inside us, available at any moment.
Like a superpower we always have.
When we don’t use this power, we are caged and powerless. A deep part in us knows that we’re not whole.
When we use this power, we are free and powerful.
And it’s entirely up to us, you and me.
It’s a great paradox.
We have the freedom to choose whether or not to use our freedom.
This is the first in many personal essays about freedom.
I discovered that freedom is the biggest theme in my life. I’m called to share what I’ve learned with as many freedom-seekers as possible.
If you’re reading these words, you’re probably a freedom-seeker too.
And I guess you’ve been feeling like me: alone in this big crowded world.
I’m glad we found each other. :)
If you are in Vietnam this February, join me in “Find Your Freedom” workshop to learn the 4 steps to break free and live the life you truly want. It’d be amazing to connect with you in person.