Story By Virginia Young
I have a single tattoo, a large feather with four tiny birds flying from it, but the feather is being used as a quill to write the word “free.”
I have a thing for feathers — and birds — going back to my great-grandmother who painted birds on ceramic, and the memory of “tiny me” swinging in her backyard while someone sang a song about a “Little Birdie in the Tree.”
I mostly love the imagery around birds. In fact, my mom once gave me relationship advice, saying that I needed to find someone that would not “trap my bird.” I understood that I was the bird, individual and free, and I needed a partnership that honored the beauty of that freedom instead of trying to change or control me.
So, when I was to choose a single word to permanently inscribe on my arm, I was thoughtful. I looked at all the things that raised up passion in me: things like authenticity, value, worth, love and awe of ALL humans and the differences they bring to this world and the concept of a Creator.
I realized that it all converged into freedom. As an American, it can be easy to conjure up images of patriotism, but freedom in this sense is rarely sat with, thought through, mulled over and defined. It is simply accepted as the universal idea of not being trapped or controlled. However, understanding something only by what it is not is inadequate.
So, how then might we think about freedom?
In searching the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, even in the long list of meanings for variations of the word “free,” you would be hard-pressed to find any definition that doesn’t begin with the word “not.”
Amongst the 20-plus possible definitions, here is a collection of the more generalized definitions: “not subject to the control or domination of another,” “unrestricted,” “choosing or capable of choosing for itself” and “ease.”
It’s that last one for me though, “ease” — like a bird in that perfect wind, soaring. Being carried along, the bird is nearly floating. This kind of freedom creates in me a heavy sigh of release.
This freedom, this “ease,” is the picture of peace — a concept that is entirely difficult to “create” for ourselves.
In fact, striving for peace likely brings you further from it. Striving points to a constant state of heightened attention and arousal, a feeling that we are not done, that things are incomplete, that we need to keep working or that it is not enough.
In my own personal quest for peace, I recently trialed a sensory deprivation float. The idea is to allow your body to have as little input from the senses as possible, like a type of restorative meditation. The water is treated with salt, among other things, to allow you to float effortlessly.
Wax earplugs are provided to greatly reduce the sound input and to keep the water out. The water is set to approximate body temperature, and the room is entirely dark, and I mean entirely. Then you lay for 90 minutes.
The experience was interesting. At first, my mind and body actively searched for sensory input.
Then, my mind started wandering into fear of the unknown. I had feelings of inadequacy of my mind and body to truly process the passing of time. I had fears that 90 minutes might feel like five hours or that my brain would take me into wild places.
I was concerned that the unknowing of how much time remained might create a heightened anxiety response similar to claustrophobia.
After allowing my mind to acknowledge the thoughts, I began to notice the remaining sensory input. If I lay as still as possible, there was still a little water bumping up against my skin. But in my fear of boredom, I began to explore what I could experience if I moved my body in this way or that. I began bumping up against the parameters of the pool.
As I noticed how far each side was, my anxiety began to diminish. I had a concept of the boundaries of my undirected floating. And then I was able to settle in, both to allow my thoughts to come and to allow them to leave in a meditative rhythm.
Why do I recount this experience?
Because it wasn’t until I had a sense of the boundaries in my floating experience that I was truly able to relax and let go — to rest and experience peace. I could not create that freedom or strive for that peace, but I could rest in it, as it was always there and available.
So, if peace is the type of freedom you are looking for, then it may best be found within a clear understanding of your humanity or finitude. Acceptance of the limits that are already there could lead to releasing the entanglement of unfitting expectations. It might take some undoing, as nothing is actually one-size-fits-all.
You see, American culture is heavily reliant on individualism and self-sufficiency, the flip side of which is competition. The individual longs to stand out or be noticed by their greater ability (or by having fewer limitations).
Let me acknowledge that testing limits and competition pushing us toward growth can be great, but we are not meant to be limitless superheroes or mythological gods (who all technically also have limitations. Am I right?).
While striving is not innately unhealthy, limitless striving for ever-greater ability and fewer and fewer limitations can create comparisons that connotate limitations as some kind of moral failing (Kelly Kapic You are Only Human pg. 10).
But the reality is that we are human, and humans are finite beings. We are meant to have limitations that vary per individual and that is not bad.
In fact, embracing this as reality can create the perfect boundary for the freedom and peace you long for. Learning your limits allows you the opportunity to explore and challenge your abilities within a safe and healthy framework, but to also let go of judgment around these limits.
If you ignore your limits in order to meet some social expectations, you are living outside your limits and cannot be the best version of yourself.
Taking it further, if you make a habit of ignoring your limitations for too long, real harm can occur — harm that involves mental, physical, social, emotional and spiritual health. Think depression, hopelessness, low self-esteem, social isolation, anxiety, strained connection in social relationships and shame.
The path of throwing out limitations — of pushing, striving and climbing to be more under the ever-moving bar of comparison and judgment — can never be satisfied.
Raise your hand if you have ever wished you could stop what feels like a runaway train and get off. Me too.
Because true freedom comes from embracing the reality that you are human and that humans are finite, with limitations, and that because you are an individual, your limitations will be distinctly individual.
More importantly, it is necessary to realize that it is okay to embrace imperfection. It is beautiful, in fact, because when you accept and embrace your limits, you release a bondage of shame and experience peace from the newfound freedom of self-understanding and radical acceptance.
Virginia Young, ALC works under the supervision of Dr. Misty Smith. She has a bachelor’s degree in music — voice performance, a master’s degree in arts in worship ministries and a Master of Science degree in clinical mental health counseling. She will be featured as a regular columnist in LIVE Lee non-themed issues from here on out.