Over the summer, my family and I went for a walk in the nearby woods. There is a shallow creek winding its way through a beautiful redwood forest and we thought it would be fun to take our Malamute puppy, who loves the water, for a slosh up the creek. There we were, having a lovely time wading through the water, our dog in a state of canine bliss and the four of us laughing and enjoying the day… Then the thought appeared in my mind, quite uninvited:
"I wonder if this is okay to do. Should we ask the ranger to see if this is allowed?"
This is not good.
I remember as a kid riding my bike through trails in a nearby park, my bb gun strapped to the frame. My thoughts were entirely focused on flying through the woods, looking for a good spot to shoot, loving the day, feeling the wind on my face, the warmth of the sun, the beauty of nature around me and the freedom of spending the afternoon having a great adventure.
It was pure fun. This is one of the memories that bring me great joy to this day. It wasn't an unusual day; I had many just like it. That one memory represents them all and the joy that I feel is compounded and deepened by knowing that I spent many days just like this.
One thought that never, ever occurred to me was, "Is this allowed?" Of course it was allowed. This is a park; its purpose for existence is for our enjoyment. I needed to know if it was allowed by my parents but I knew the general guidelines for that: be home by dinner, don't do anything too stupid … I think that about covered it.
This spirit vanished last summer, the moment that thought – "I wonder if this is okay to do. Should we ask the ranger to see if this is allowed?" – entered my mind.
Well, actually, it vanished for a moment. My next thought was, "Wow, that's weird." And then I talked about it with my wife, who was having the same thought and we laughed at how ridiculous it was and continued having a great time perambulating the creek for the next couple of hours. That was one of our great times together over the summer, one that we'll probably all remember fondly for a very, very long time.
But it could've been ruined by the kind of internalized oppression that I fear our culture has begun to get used to.
Have you noticed this? Are there situations where maybe 20-30 years ago you would never have thought, "I wonder whether this is allowed?" but now you do? It may not be a strong thought. It may be something that you notice and brush off like a harmless bug on your arm. But there it is now – and it wasn't there before.
I don't want to get too worked up about this. We internalize rules all the time. There are traffic rules, work guidelines, rules of good manners… these are all just behaviors that we habituate so our more or less automatic behavior is functional in the world. Such thoughts are no different in principle.
But they are different, and more intrusive, than they used to be. And this is a matter that requires our conscious awareness.
There are rules that allow us to get along better. There are rules in the park that legitimately help people to have a better day – pick up after your dog, don't do things that would start a forest fire, things like that. There are some rules that weren't there 20-30 years ago that are genuinely positive; there is much more awareness about issues of child abuse, for example. There are safety habits that would've been scoffed at when I was a kid that actually save and improve lives today (though there is a big difference between safety habits that we are persuaded to adopt voluntarily and safety laws that are imposed upon us).
But the controlling impulse tends to build a momentum; when one problem is apparently solved by making a rule some people assume that more rules will automatically solve more problems – and solving problems is good, right?
My wife went for a different walk in the woods with an acquaintance from her work a few years back. This gal was married to some kind of environmental scientist and so they were by nature environmental control freaks. When my wife said something about all the rules there are now just to take a walk in the park, this zealot said:
"If it were up to me there would be a lot more rules for the parks. I'd make it a lot more strict."
Of course she would. This is what matters to her. She wants people to behave in nature the way she thinks they should. And the zealot who runs the local planning department wants people to build their houses the way she thinks they should be built. And the zealot on the school board wants kids to learn what he thinks they should learn. And the zealot with the parks department wants to imprison people for getting too close to a whale (this actually happened recently in Monterey Bay).
And, of course, the zealot in the White House wants the whole country to bow to his enlightened will.
We all know that it takes conscious awareness and involvement if we want to keep our freedom – the cost of liberty is eternal vigilance.
But this vigilance is not only external. It's one thing when the rules on the outside become oppressive – which they have – but you also play a personal role in this: Your internal acceptance of an oppressive mindset is necessary for allowing an oppressive government to continue to intrude further into our lives. It is this internal acceptance and adaptation that allows people to continue to obey an authority that is out of control.
When one person questions oppressive authority, the likelihood that those who witness that questioning will also question it increases dramatically. If this happens widely enough, pretty soon you may begin to see a turn toward greater liberty.
Begin to look for the messages you tell yourself about what you can and cannot do, what is allowed and what is not. There are plenty of things that you legitimately should not do; but having a fun time with your family walking up a creek in the park is not among them.