As we celebrate our freedoms this July 4th, we are being challenged, both nationally and globally, to protect those freedoms from the agenda of those who are motivated by their political or religious ideology to exert ultimate control over others’ lives. And, as we rejoice in the freedoms we still have here in America, we may ask ourselves why it is that, in the course of human history, tyrants are continually able to come to power and to trample on God-given human freedoms.
Is it because, as psychoanalyst Erich Fromm suggested, we resist freedom because it separates us from the childhood comfort of having our decisions made for us, of never having to live with the consequences of our own decisions? Is it because, as Fromm further contends, “man…tries to escape into a new bondage” that gives him a feeling of security at the price of “giving up the integrity of his self”? Is it because, as Fromm concludes, “freedom from external authority is a lasting goal only if the inner psychological conditions are such that we are able to establish our own individuality”?
To answer these questions, we can find clues in the Indo-European word for freedom, “prai” from which both the words “free” and “afraid” derive. Since both these words are derivations of the same root word, “prai,” we discover that there is an underlying relationship between being free and being afraid. In fact, they are the antithesis of each other: if we are afraid, that fear automatically controls our thoughts, shapes our words, drives our actions, and prevents us from being free; so, if we are afraid, by definition, we cannot, at the same time, be totally free. And, as history repeatedly proves, if we are not free within ourselves, we are willing subjects for tyrants who seek to have external authority over our lives.
The original meaning of the word “prai” – beloved, precious, at peace – also provides significant insight into the components of being free. If we sense that we are beloved, we feel precious and enjoy a strong sense of self worth, and, consequently, we are at peace with ourselves and the world. We are “prai,” beloved, precious, and at peace, and we are free. Conversely, if experiences in our lives result in our feeling unloved, we find it difficult to comprehend that we have innate human value, and, lacking a sense of self worth, we are at odds with ourselves and, consequently, with the world. We are “effrayer,” the French word derived from the Indo-European “prai” and the Latin “ex,” meaning “out of.” Being without a sense that we are beloved, precious, and at peace, we are afraid.
Since few of us are ever entirely free or entirely afraid, our thoughts, words, and actions are constantly vacillating back and forth on an internal continuum between being free and being afraid. As we begin to take notice of our motivations, and especially of those shaped by our fears, we can clearly begin to see how those fears are distorting not only our perceptions of ourselves and our environment but also our resolve to embrace the responsibilities of freedom. And the antidote to those fears is clear: we can consciously reexamine those experiences that make us feel unloved, worthless, and insecure, and we can leave those experiences in the past and seek out new experiences that will reinforce that we are beloved, we are precious, and, consequently, we can be at peace. We can be free. And we can continually help others feel beloved, precious, and at peace. We can continually help others to become free, to stay free, and to reject the seduction of tyrants.