Though my name is strictly Francis (coupled to my middle name, Thomas, my chosen-by-myself confirmation name, George, and my family names, Loch and O’Hanlon), I’ve been known all my life ‘out there in the real world’ by one name alone: Frank.
Sure, there’s sometimes variations on it, Frankie, most usually, but Frank is where it’s usually centred for me. (Xisor, on the otherhand, is fairly well known and persistent in online use. Though for a while there I was also meeting people who’d only known me online via the conversation “Are you ‘Frank’ from TheSinner?”, which amused me a lot. Apparently I speak exactly like I write.)
Anyhow, the point here is Frank. The phrases you’ll know, ‘Frankly,…’ and ‘If you’ll let me be frank…’ typically come coupled to honesty. But it’s not really honesty that the word and name resonates with, for me. Rather: free.
I understand that derives from the medieval Latin francus, being ‘free’ or perhaps ‘free from obligation’.
And that’s kinda what I wanted to discuss. It’s a concept that’s plagued me for a while, that’s always left me feeling a little isolated and a bit resentful, but nevertheless also empowered and whole. It’s a concept that stands up to inspection as its own thing, a blessing and a curse both. A demon, if you will; at least in the style of this series. I shall begin…
Free of Obligation
As said, I’ve been reading recently. Well, I read often. I’m a slow reader (usually, at best, a fairly normal sized novel a week), but it’s often. This week it’s been “Brotherhood of the Storm” and “Scars” by Chris Wraight. In it, there’s talk about the unruliness of the White Scars faction and their leader, they’re fluid, they’re rarely pinned down, they wander off out of contact and rarely are easy to get a hold of. They’re easily forgotten and readily overlooked too, surely a direct consequence of their isolation as, taking a dichotomy for others’ response to this, it’s either ‘forget about them’ or ‘stress silly trying to keep track of them’. Everyone’s happier, of those two choices, by opting for the first. But that breeds an air of resentment too.
Unsurprisingly, this would be a description that perhaps has vexed my close friends and family over the years. I’ve always been encouraged to feel that this is me being deeply irresponsible and insulting to them, in being uncaring and scornful.
I’d contend, now, having seen it pinned down and had exceedingly charged interactions with people this last year because of it, that, actually, it’s not. Well, I mean, it is in some respects. But it’s an aspect a swathe of people simply don’t understand because they don’t feel it so acutely, in their eyes anyone who exhibits this tendency to… roam, to isolate themselves, to wander freely is really quite selfish.
In the heat of arguments, I’ve long contended (though without any rigour or substantiation) that, actually, people’s expectations of obligation, to be in close contact, to keep in touch is in fact itself inherently selfish. It hardly needs stating, but not everyone is the same. I don’t think this really falls on the pseudo-psych parlance of ‘introverted/extroverted’, it’s a further complication quite beyond that. It’s not even a mere stance on authority (though in “Scars”, I’ll grant that for Jaghatai Khan, it seems there’s a definite anti-authority thread to it; the parallel isn’t exact, though even then, I’ve certainly found myself at odds with authority both in principle and in practice) and the rigid structures, it’s more than that.
I feel it quite acutely too. It’s what calls me away, travelling. But, unlike many other people who I’ve known that travel, I’m not a terribly social traveller. Indeed, part of my travelling motto has become “I travel alone”. I’ll happily congregate with friends and make friends along the way, but actually travelling with people in tow is basically the description of a nightmare, for me.
But, fundamentally, that’s not a damning criticism of other people. Or it shouldn’t be. The fact is, people can be socially very gifted, capable of organising and coordinating, planning and negotiating and encouraging everyone to come to a happy, timely decision. Other people (e.g. not me) not only seem to be good at that, they value it strongly and absolutely have a better time because of it.
In the mind of someone inclined to be an avatar of this demon of freedom, these sort of things not only sound a bit like chains that bind, but chains that burn and chafe too. An activity that sucks out the purpose and enjoyment of the greater endeavour and replaces it with a hollow, unrewarding exercise that brings you much closer to what is ostensibly your goal, but which itself is hollowed out by the very method one takes to approach it.
In that regard, this disposition quite strongly governs one’s sense of value-judgement. If an objective requires great planning, forethought and graft to get to: it’s not worth it.
Yet I cannot deny that the exuberant, intermingled and highly-social ‘travel, meet new people’ still appeals to me. But I sit very far on such a spectrum from the avatars of that particular entity, but certainly close enough to, now and then, feel the envy, the desire to be effortlessly integrating with people and assembling hosts at the drop of a hat. That envy’s happily tempered by the reassuring presence of my own little hordes of friends, and then quickly that temperance is punctured by the unwelcome feeling of neglecting my responsibilities and the even more unwelcome sense that those ‘responsibilities’ aren’t ones I care for in the first place. Learned habits and attitudes? Perhaps. They don’t strike me as ones I’ve had outfitted myself with had I been free to construct my own pool of desires… but then what sort of hellish monster would that have been? A wholly different kettle of demons, I suspect!
Duty is its own reward
By contrast, however, for me this doesn’t make me inclined to shy away from hard, complex or long term work. It merely leaves me a little empty, enthusiasm-wise, with regards to achieving long-term goals. I like a good party. Hell, I’d go so far as to say I love them. The ‘big, well attended, orchestrated’ parties that many people favour are simply not things I can get excited about.
This goes for ‘less fun’ things too. Big work projects, careers, being driven and knowing your objectives. That’s all putting the cart before the horse, if this demon’s in control. Doing a job and doing it well: that’s brilliant. Having the freedom to be in a situation that itself is chaining you, and to navigate it to a successful conclusion: brilliant. A challenge, a feeling of invigoration, even along with the most intense stress. Brilliant! Beyond that, a boring, lacklustre malaise sets in, prompting the freedom-demon to try to poke and prod its way to interest, to invigoration.
A two-part series I recently encountered, “Why procrastinators procrastinate”, expertly deals with how to manage this aspect of the demon in day to day life, in its manifestation as Instant Gratification Monkey, which is perhaps laudable and certainly shares immense characteristics with what I’m describing here, but fails, I think, to capture what seems to me to be a bit of a broader ethos. A background or extension, a context which underpins that ‘procrastinator’ disposition.
And that, I think, is the chafing a the chains of obligation: They simply don’t apply, mentally. They appear to be an social edifice created, articulated and propagated by the people they do work for (and presumably work very well for them, though I have my suspicions), for whom those notions really resonated and have power.
But, as said earlier in this section, that’s quite a difference from a proclivity towards procrastination which gets in the way of being productive (which is fine, if also difficult and manageable) as opposed to a sense of unease because of wider obligations. Obligations like ‘staying in touch’. It might be easy for others to feel the need to ‘check in’ with people, some might draw massive self-satisfaction from the interaction – I know that they certainly generate a lot of satisfaction for others, it’s plain to see how a good chat can brighten people’s spirits.
But, when one is stuck here with this demon bouncing around (or indeed: being) one’s soul, it’s simply not a question. It’s not a ‘shirking of something you actually want to do’, but simply seeing the act itself as a bit alien. You’d feel much happier wandering off and leaving people to it. You trust them to be left to their own devices, you wish them well, you might even be really curious about their lives in a deeply caring capacity – nevertheless, ‘showing it’ (in a ‘well why don’t you show it?’ accusing sense) becomes a token activity.
The reason such people don’t make an effort to ‘show it’ is because it’s a slightly revolting and alien activity, no more natural or pleasant than gouging out their eye with a spoon to show how sincere they are at honestly bidding someone a ‘good morning’. (“No. I don’t think you understand. I really, genuinely want you to have a good morning.”)
Sincerity and Avowal
This is all independent too from a concept of sincerity and honesty, of integrity or even just ‘total frankness’ in a brutally uninhibited manner of speech. I think that’s certainly respectable, hell I even wish I was myself able to indulge it.
Rather, whether someone is ‘shirking their duties’ surely has its own axis on it too. Does any given person themself beleive that a duty is worthwhile? It’s one thing to sign up to a duty at work and do it half-arsed because you’re not personally invested in it beyond the job. You don’t, to yourself, avow that this is a serious duty. That’s something bad, certainly. But ‘doing a job with integrity’ typically is only part of your work contract, not your social contracts.
For myself, certainly, I find it important to do most or indeed all of my tasks in such a case to the best of my ability and, even if I don’t avow the duty’s importance to myself, I have avowed the concept of integrity and try to live up to my name in terms of honesty: so if I’ve committed, I try to commit as much as I can. Even if it’s not a ‘natural’ thing for me. I’ll feel more daunted by such tasks, even apprehensive: I’ll still do them. (And if I fail at them, or fail to do them properly, that’s a failing for me. I do recognise that this is where the axis and understanding of anxiety comes in to play. I really hope not to inadvertently, ignorantly and inconsiderately trample all across that interesting field of thought.)
But there’s a contract there that’s not negotiated, that’s a binding chain that continually chafes.
Freedom and the Social Contract
This is again a premier component. My suspicion is that, in many cases and perhaps for most people reading, the ‘keep in contact with people you value and care for’ component of the social contract isn’t only a no-brainer, it’s fundamental to most relations and relationships. Without it, how would you even know you’ve got that connection, that relation?
For someone suffering this little demon, which certainly has overtures of the concept of ‘liberty’ (or indeed: goddesses, Libertas and Eleutheria [who herself overlapped with Artemis, it seems – celestial kin to Warhammer’s male Kurnous]) to it, this is an obligation that comes from nowhere. A tradition that serves only the needs of others and to comprehensively oppress yourself and your demon. Indeed, it’s already noted that, for myself at least, a stoic approach to doing a job with some alacrity and integrity is quite manageable. Those are chains that can be taken up and worn heartily, readily.
These chains, quite askance from the activity of work, speak much more closely to the inside of one’s head. They speak to the very nature of how the so-afflicted derive pleasure from relationships. I’d contend that the truth of the relationship matters, the interplay of avowal and activity, the lived exchanges and the happier concepts of what could be even when it’s not happening. The things that might be nice, but can live happily as welcome possibilities. Those are marks of a good thing.
The pressure to substantiate those welcome possibilities with relentlessly effortful, alien and onerously pre-meditated encounters? No, no, that’s something that’s not enjoyed. Again, that robs the pleasant interaction of its heart, of its integrity and atomicity by breaking it apart and hollowing out that core to make everything ‘just so’ – to tick boxes more than to kindle an enjoyable event.
In some respects, it leaves me mystified and plagued with self-doubt. If, for example, I’m feeling naturally at ease with being completely oblivious with regards to the urge to communicate and to follow through the threads of relationships, the careful adherence to the choreography, then where am I actually deriving the pleasure? Or, more curiously, where are they deriving the pleasure? Do we still share the joys of the encounter, the exchange of views and the meeting of minds and the shared endeavours?
I happen to think we do. There’s always that niggle of doubt. Some folk, those who seem to really revel in planning ahead and live for neat interlocking of foresight and reality, whose own ‘present’ is more like the slider of a zip, fusing the teeth of the future into the neatly locked seal of the past: to anyone who operates that way, do the details of the teeth, the pleasure of the ‘mechanism’ inside the slider pose any attraction? Do the details matter as much as making it fit to the plan?
I’m amazed as to how those values are guided. But, that’s perhaps only as a distraction to the complete mystery that guides my own fundamental desires. Why interest in A and not B?
Demons Can Be Fought
It is truly something else to run free. On a night out, the wonderful grind of society marches ever onwards, people and things interact in some sort of multi-dimensional Brownian motion, values and parameters shielded at the coterminous extents of meeting minds change and are re-evaluated, the interiors of currently ineffable neural wetworks dance their inexhaustible dances (foremost: the underpants tango?) as the species has done for millennia upon millennia. Social science might one day unravel the mysteries; for now and as best humanity can project beyond its horizons, the rules of ‘the game’, whether simply towards the underpants tango or to far more esoteric or high-brow interactions, whatever goals are sought for as life is lived, the rules remain fleeting at best, suspect and subtly changing, rarely with serious coherency and seemingly only truly (and even then…) understood by a sliver of humanity that’s almost certainly ‘other’ to you – you barely comprehend the impulse of the so-called rules, though you happily comprehend their implications and plainly see that they certainly apply to Other People. You decide to wander off, to see what’s around the corner. You’re not too bothered about ticking-boxes for the evening, you certainly never felt the draw of the place as a transactional market where business is conducted. You were here to dance, but not everyone feels it. You wander off and see what’s elsewhere – you’ll probably return, you derive immense value from the whims of your friends and the exploration of the minds of strangers, their own habits and oddities, the things you share in common with them, the simple fraternity and sorority of being. Still you wander off. You’re an enigmatic bastard, after all; you move in mysterious ways.
As noted rather early on: the main problem faced from all this is twofold. On a purely personal level, there’s that disposition towards being a procrastinator – that’s surely from seeing given tasks as part of someone else’s problem, not ‘feeling’ the serious freedom of the situation and only conceptualising the tedious obligation. That can be fought very well indeed, as per Wait But Why’s above blog. Indeed, it’s actually a beautiful and immensely pragmatic breakdown of pretty much just ‘getting yourself sorted’ – a dose of introspection and awareness of your own habits. It’s cool, I really hope I’ll embrace it – though that’s the somewhat lazy side of the host, not truly an aspect of Eleftheria, the demon being discussed herein.
No, Eleftheria’s battle takes a rather similar approach, yet I am inclined to side with the demon. These ‘obligations’ obligations should be challenged. Hermits have existed, surely, throughout history. They’re established enough, certainly. The wild wanderer, the itinerant, the people who’re a bit fly-by-night. But deary my, they’ve accumulated a pretty awful pile of dubious baggage.
The very nature described here certainly stands to some scrutiny. Untrustworthy? Unreliable? Well, yes, in some respects. But I think that’s without pejorative – or at least it should be. The demon’s untrustworthy because Eleftheria’s values are out of kilter with those that seem dominant from others. Still, if I’m honest, I really don’t believe that dominance is spanning. I don’t think it covers the human condition, I don’t even think it covers a near-totality of the human condition to start referring to those it doesn’t include as ‘outliers’. They’re certainly not aberrations, except as aberrations of an overly-tightly-fit model. Say 95% of people feel naturally obliged by those sort of chains, the urge to ‘stay in contact’ and ‘keep those close to you updated’ for example. That spread might well be independent of other things. It could be independent of, say, dispositions towards isolation or intense sociality: but in both cases the person quickly becomes a ‘nuisance to get hold of’, someone easily resented for never making the effort.
Within that 95% who might refer themselves as ‘making the effort’, what proportion actually feel the effort? Is it onerous, or simply the activity itself, a textbook ‘effort’ rather than a struggle? And of those, what sort of variation’s within that, who feels the burden and who uses the phrase? These percentages are plucked from nowhere at all, but narratively they fit conceptually well enough. Is there a type of person who suffers the wildness and wanderlust of Eleftheria, or is it just an extra layer, an added trait that merely interferes or complements everything else? I can imagine it being both, and neither. I can imagine it being the case that this whole thing doesn’t exist as a distinct ‘thing’ (or composition [or half-truth that only captures a small portion of a greater mystery]).
Ultimately, none of that helps the feeling that being shackled to tokens and other people’s rules is an ongoing misery. Not ‘petty’ rules like stay off the grass or do the washing up or don’t punch people you hate, more the rules that get touted as being necessary parts of the human condition.
It’s the unwelcome, alien sense of obligation that I could do without. Practical, functional duties? I can here it now: “you have a duty to your family, to your friends!” My gut reaction quickly becomes: “then I don’t want that family, those friends” – even though I do. A bit of understanding, that’s a practical, sensible hope.
Something Stephen Fry blogged about last year similarly resonated. It doesn’t quite overlap precisely, yet still there’s an immense and brilliant feeling to the post, especially in only one microcosmic sentence of it:
“I don’t want to be alone, but I want to be left alone.”