In August 1969 at the Woodstock festival Richie Havens improvised a memorable song about freedom at the end of his performance: ‘Freedom, freedom, freedom (…) Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, a long way from my home. (…) Sometimes I feel like I’m almost gone, a long way from my home.’ In these few lines he powerfully expressed a new sense of freedom, shared by many people of his generation: how we can be tormented by feeling separated from everything – not only from other people like our own mother, but also from the country we’re born in and even from ourselves, our authentic being – and how much we yearn to be freed from this separation. Even after 45 years his plea hasn’t lost its power and urgency.
A bulwark of freedom
Four centuries earlier, freedom was also an important element that inspired the founding of Leiden University in 1575. On the logo of the university we can still read the Latin words ‘Academia Lugduno Batava Libertatis Praesidium’, Leiden University as a bulwark of freedom. If we compare this concept of freedom with the 1960s sense of freedom, we can see how much has changed in 400 years. In 1575 the concept of (academic) freedom was inspired by the liberation of Leiden from Spanish occupation in October 1574, and basically referred to the absence of interference by outside authorities. In the 1960s the concept was expanded to include a new, inner dimension. It came to include the freedom to individually live an authentic life, connected to others and the world.
More freedom for some, less freedom for others
After the 16th century important steps were taken in the realisation of freedom, especially since the 19th century: Darwin published his evolution theory, slavery was abolished, women fought for equal rights. One after another the colonized countries became independent. And so on. In these developments the freedom concept was still largely limited to a freeing from interference by outside authorities. If we think about the relationship between this type of freedom and criminal law, it is interesting that all through this period there was a mental climate in which the prison sentence kept making a lot of sense. To take someone’s freedom away and put him or her under the permanent supervision of an outside authority, was considered a quite logical way to punish a crime.
The urge to live an authentic life
There are two different ways to understand ‘freedom’, according to the American psychologist Robert Sardello (in ‘Freeing the Soul from Fear’): ‘Freedom usually means to be free from external constraints, to be free to do something. This usual sense of the word, though, has nothing to do with the essence of human freedom, which lies in each of us being exactly who we are, not just in an external way but in soul and spirit as well.’ In the 1960s people in the West became conscious of freedom in the second sense, the freedom to be who we are.
However simple it may have sounded in a 1960s song, we all know it has turned out not that simple to realize, also due to the fact that Western civilisation from the start has been built on the importance of our sense of ego-separateness (see my previous blog). It could be argued that the urge to live authentic, connected lives is still central to the various crises (financial, ecological, spiritual) confronting us today. I think it’s not accidental that in this changing mental climate the prison sentence is questioned and criminals are now punished preferably in an alternative way, within society.
Other cultures, minorities & boat refugees
It’s good to remind ourselves that the expanded sense of freedom in the 1960s also opened the Western mind collectively to other cultures and to marginalised minorities within society. That’s why the fact that Richie Havens and the rest of his band members were black, gave his message even more meaning.Watching him sing his song after all these years, my mind turned to the many boat refugees who at the moment are trying to reach Europe from Africa and the Middle East, to escape from the terrible conditions they have been living in. They might be unaware that Europe – like the rest of the Western World – is still struggling to free itself from a deep sense of ego-separateness and is going through major changes.
Who is going to benefit?
Perhaps the Western authorities too easily assume that these refugees are only aiming to benefit themselves. Mightn’t they have something important to offer as well? It’s not too hard to imagine that in time some of them might actually help – like Richie Havens and many others have done so marvelously before them – to steer these changes in the right direction.
Freedom, in the end, comes down to finding a home – for us all.