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#6: The paradox of freedom

By 2022-12-23May 12th, 2023No Comments

“A lot of wanting, obligation, compulsion, optimization; little living, loving, being and feeling” – a friend described my last letter of freedom as rather unfree.

Quite to the contrary: My plan to be as healthy, vital and lively at age 40 as at 20, arose out of deepest self-love and the desire to feel life to the fullest.

Everyone perceives and defines freedom differently. For me, habits and health are just one facet of this complex diamond.

The conversation, however, raised an interesting question. If I do everything I want to do and nothing I don’t want to do today, and that leads to less freedom in the long run, am I really free? Or am I more likely to set myself free if I impose perceived limitations on myself today, but in doing so will retain freedom in the long term?

The philosopher Karl Popper described the paradox of tolerance in 1945: “If we extend unlimited tolerance even to the intolerant […] then the tolerant will be destroyed and tolerance with them.”

I therefore propose the freedom paradox: If we behave freely as we please, then freedom will be destroyed in the long run.

For me, habits are one of the keys to long-term freedom. They are to us like the autopilot on an airplane. Contrary to popular belief, the autopilot does not fly the plane from A to B without the intervention of the human pilot. In its simplest form, it corresponds to the cruise control in a car. You want a certain speed to be maintained and press a button on the steering wheel – the cruise control takes over the accelerator and and, in some cases, the brakes.

In addition to speed, the autopilot in the aircraft also maintains altitude and heading. Modern commercial aircraft are so advanced that the entire route can be entered before the flight and flown after activating the autopilot in flight (only altitude changes cannot be pre-programmed and must be entered at the time they are to take place). However, if there is an obstacle in the way, the autopilot will not take evasive action! It stubbornly does what the human has told it to do. The autopilot does not distinguish between useful and dangerous.

If you repeat actions often enough, they become habit. You program the autopilot of your life. On the plane, every change in speed, altitude, and course is a step closer to or further away from the destination. It’s the same with your habits.

If you eat whole foods, exercise outdoors and get enough sleep, these are steps towards a healthy, vital future. If you drink Coke for breakfast, sit in front of the TV all day and consider chips and cookies nutritious, your health will suffer.

Not today, not tomorrow and maybe not next year. But one day, you will realize that your health makes you free or that you are dependent on medicine and doctors. Doing the right thing once or ten times promises you success just as little as doing the wrong thing once or ten times promises failure. But while once can be a slip, ten repetitions already indicate a trend.

It is challenging to acquire a new habit if the conditions are not right – like a seed that is to germinate and grow into a plant. Breaking an old habit is as hard as uprooting a hundred-year-old oak tree.

You need the right tools to break bad habits and build good ones. You need to know what adjustments are needed to fly in the right direction and at the right altitude. Once programmed, all you need to do is tiny tweaks to stay on track.

Life is easy and carefree with the right habits, because they are almost automatic. They let you be free in the present while setting you up for long-term freedom.


Yours, Ulrich

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