Freedom in Mind

Chapter 9
The Embrace of the Demons

"Why did I do that? I can't believe I did that!"

"What have I said? I can't believe that came out of my mouth!"

It is instant regret when the demons make you do it. You try to be cool, and end up the fool. You aim to talk turkey, and end up the goose.

You land a job, and get there late the first day, because you overslept. You get a promotion, and celebrate by getting drunk and wrecking the car. You get a raise, and gamble it away in Vegas. It's your self-destruct demon.

You're in a hurry at the market, so you take twenty items into the ten item line, and end up in a hassle. You're impatient on the freeway, so you pass on the shoulder, and spend twenty minutes getting a ticket. You double park to pick up the kids, and go crazy with the honking horns. It's your me-first demon.

There's the macho-man demon behind your black eye, and the I-can-do-anything demon behind your sprained ankle, and the let's-have-a-fight demon behind your lonely night. There's the demon that makes you say the wrong thing for every occasion, and the demon that makes you learn everything the hard way. To ruin each day, there's a demon.

When you act without clear awareness of the choice involved, then the answer to, "Why did you do that?" is, "I don't know." The answer to, "Why did you say that?" is, "I just did." It can seem like something made you do it. It does not feel like you have a choice about passing on the shoulder, or about mouthing off. You don't feel free; you feel pushed around by compulsions. Since you don't own your actions, you don't own your life. It has been stolen by demons.

Some prefer it that way. They are slaves to their demons, so nothing is really their fault. Oh sure, they get blamed, but it's not fair. When they do ill, it's not on purpose; it's some demon twisting good intentions into bad endings. If they weren't surrounded by enemies finding fault, things would work out. The demons inside echo the demons outside.

Others suppose that they could, if they tried enough, face down the demons and avoid acting on impulse, and thus break free into a life of their own. But that would require paying attention all the time. Paying attention all the time is one of the things they want to be free from.

Bad habits seem like demons when you don't pay attention. When the bad habit happens not to do harm, you don't notice it. When it does harm, you blame it. Otherwise, you'd have to say, "I did harm on purpose," which sounds wrong, because you weren't paying that much attention.

In such a mixed-up state of mind, freedom from external compulsion gets confused with freedom from internal impulsion. If police were more severe, you'd be scared to double park, and scared to pass on the shoulder. Controls would free you from those two demons, and maybe all your demons. Regimentation could set you free.

Regimentation must be popular: it is common all around the globe. So it is easy to check and see if people live better that way. Something is wrong, though; they live worse that way. Regimented people seem to lack motivation. The economy goes sour for lack of innovation. It's a paradox: regimentation to free people from their inner demons puts them into a stupor.

The paradox dissolves when you reflect that regimentation frees people from the need to pay attention. The dictator lives your life for you. You have only to breathe occasionally. Whether you starve or feast is not your doing, but the dictator's. Regimentation is supposed to kill the transgressions of the populace, but actually kills the spirit of the populace. It quiets the demons by stifling the mind.

Governments at present are engaged in a search for the magic balance. They think there has to be some amount of regimentation that will hold those demons at bay without holding down the innovations that create wealth. Perhaps so if they were fighting fire-and-brimstone demons, but not if they are fighting bad habits.

A crime is a violation of the fundamental moral principle of society, individual rights. It is deliberately initiating force against people and property. The criminal can be objectively identified, and separated from society. Nothing is objectively called a crime which is not objectively alien to society. A government that calls a bad habit crime is lying.

While crime is judged in a societal context, habits must be judged in a personal context. Gum chewing is a bad habit if it ruins teeth, but a good habit if it fights dry mouth. Quick temper does bad things for a priest, but good things for a general. To judge a personal habit, you must start with a standard based on man's nature, then narrow down to the range applicable to you in particular, then compare your habit to that personalized standard. Only you know all the facts to be considered, so only you can make the objective judgment.

Picking a fight with your spouse is usually bad because it fails the general test of being guided by reason. Done violently, it is a crime. But imagine trying to enforce a law against unjustified marital arguments. What could be the moral justification for a government deciding which arguments to punish?

Crime is the object of government regulation. Bad habits are the objects of personal self-regulation. This would be too obvious to mention, except that governments all over the world make laws against things like chewing gum, talking loud, and using lipstick. In our country, it is legal to be addicted to nicotine, but illegal to be addicted to marijuana. It is legal to be addicted to alcohol, but illegal to be addicted to heroine. Historical experience allows no illusion that such prohibitions work, but addiction is considered demonic, so we hope to scare it away.

If habits are good or bad in a personal context, then the control that sets you free from bad ones is self-control. When the demon says to cut in line, you have to think about it instead. When the demon says to make that cruel joke, you have to think about it instead. To control those demonic bad habits, you have to form a good habit: thinking.

If you are free to read this, then at this moment you can ignore all coercion and be fully able to exercise the basic freedom of a being who survives by reason: the freedom to think. That is, you can observe the identity of things, classify them according to relationships, and evaluate what that means for you. While you are doing your own thinking, you are living your own life. Neither exterior compulsions nor interior demons have any sway while you are thinking.

If while you read this, you do not identify and classify, but only feel various emotions and experience various impulses, then you may confuse the emotions with thoughts, and the impulses with decisions. A bad emotion might seem inescapable, and a bad impulse might seem inexorable. You might seem ruled by demons. The remedy: learn to think.

If the demons are simply bad habits you indulge by not paying attention, why not get rid of them? When you pay attention to bad habits, and consistently remind yourself not to indulge them, they begin to fade away. The habit of impatience on the freeway is replaced by the habit of planning to avoid congestion. The habit of bad manners at the movie is replaced by the habit of attending to the story. The habit of being careless is replaced by the habit of paying attention.

If you don't bother to watch what you do, then others will have to, and they will restrict your freedom. If you are willing to watch what you do, you will often find others willing to let you do it.

The basis of a society is the right to life. The method by which a society improves life is cooperation. If personal demons destroy your ability to cooperate, society does you no good. If you don't want to think about it, then freedom does you no good. You will pay lip service to the idea of freedom, and hope for more controls. Since no amount of external control will stop your internal demons, you can never have enough controls.

A moment demonized by a bad habit is a moment stolen away from your authentic personal life—a moment not lived, but wasted. For that moment, whether you were free or enslaved did not matter; it was not your moment anyway. If you don't care about freedom, perhaps there are too many of those wasted moments. If your attachment to freedom is lukewarm, perhaps the demons are closing in.

A passionate desire for freedom comes from a passionate desire to regulate your actions yourself, which comes from the observation that only then are you living your own life. To try thinking another's thoughts is to try living another's life. To lose the distinction between what I decide for you and what you decide for yourself is to lose the distinction between freedom and slavery.

That is the secret the demons are hiding from you. You are the only policeman of your mind. If the threat of force scares you into concealing the demons, they will be all the more free to torment you. Only thinking, and acting on the results of thinking, will curb the demons. To fight inner demons, you must be free to think. The more compulsion you feel to do bad, the more you need to think for yourself and clear up the confusion about what is good and bad.

Reasonable people do not cut in line, because they realize this would make things worse for them, not better. They refuse to act on impulse, because experience has taught them that obeying impulses makes trouble. They feel free to be rude, but see no point in it. They don't want to live some barbarian's life; they want to live their own lives. Since they are capable of self-regulation, they demand freedom, and make good use of it.

Freedom, as the absence of coercion, is not an end in itself, but the means to an end: thinking for yourself, and acting on the results of your thinking. When you can think and act on your own, then experience shows you what habits to keep, and what habits to get rid of. When you are free to discover the results of your thinking, you are free to improve the results by improving the methods.

Thinking for yourself is living an unborrowed life, in which mistakes are corrected and bad habits are changed to good. The last thing such a life has time for is imaginary demons.

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