If everything goes well, you get about 30,000 days altogether. A pretty generous helping, but not unlimited. If you start in the morning, you can easily count through all the days of your life by the time you retire that night. Although admittedly that would be a silly way to spend a day. As I said, the supply is not unlimited.

Sartre once said “Freedom is what we do with what is done to us” (well, actually, he said it in french). As maxims go, this is not only quite evidently true, but also rather useful, in a prescriptive way. You see, every single one of us (you know who you are) has had the experience, at some point in our adult lives, of dealing with insult or injustice by turning our anger inward. Roughly the equivalent of a child who says: “I’m going to hold my breath until I get my way.” With one crucial difference: We know, in the adult world, that holding our breath will not result in our getting our way.

Back to Sartre and that finite supply of days. What old Jean-Paul was telling us is that the clock is ticking, whether or not we choose to acknowledge it. This is not necessarily a bad thing. The knowledge that one day our very existence will dissolve into utter nothingness is an excellent structuring device, if you see what I mean. And a little structure never hurt anybody.

Bad things happen to you. Events can screw you over, and people you love can get hurt, or decide to stop loving you back. Or sometimes they die. It’s perfectly natural to want to hold your breath until the Universe realizes it is being terribly unfair and agrees to mend its ways. Except for the inconvenient fact that the Universe could care less whether you happen to be breathing. Darn.

Which is where Sartre comes in. Buddhism says roughtly the same thing in a different way, as do many other philosophies. But Sartre doesn’t dress it up in piety. He just lays the cards on the table for you. “Look,” he is saying (I’m interpolating here, bear with me), “You want to be an idiot, fine, be an idiot. But every day you waste feeling angry and hurt because of what was done to you, that’s one day less you get to enjoy the dazzling miracle of one of these 30,000 days.

“That may seem fine to you now, while you’re sitting there holding your breath and feeling miserable and repeating ‘It’s not fair, it’s not fair‘ until you’ve managed to drive everyone out of the room. But one day, toward the end of your life, you’re going to think back on how many days you wasted doing that. And then oh boy are you going to feel stupid.”

And that, my friends, was Jean-Paul Sartre’s take on how to be free. I know he didn’t say it exactly like that, but I’m pretty sure that’s more or less what he meant.

5 thoughts on “Freedom”

  1. Ken, I love that one:
    “Except for the inconvenient fact that the Universe could care less whether you happen to be breathing. Darn.”
    Nothing can be more true. And knowing that makes living so much easier… 🙂

  2. Another take on the notion of life & fairness (I know it’s trite to spout quotes but hey, it’s Monday):

    “I used to think it was terrible that life was so unfair. And then I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be much worse if life were fair; and all the terrible things that happen to us come because we actually deserve them.’

    And so now I take great comfort in the general hostility and unfairness of the Universe.” – Marcus Cole [Ranger, Babylon 5: A Late Delivery from Avalon [3.13]]

  3. Yes, yes, I knew it, I knew it!! If Ranger Cole is to be believed, none of the crap in my life is my fault after all.

    Oh gosh what a relief. I am so happy now.


  4. I was looking for a quote on something else entirely and stumbled upon your blog. Brillant, moving and insightful. Thanks.

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