Forms of Freedom

In case you haven’t heard, Finnish is a rather funny language. It has a particularly unusual grammar structure, and the vocabulary is less inter-related with other languages than pretty much any living language in the industrialized world. There is a word for borrowed words which is in itself rather interesting: “sivistyssanat”. There is no literal translation for the word “sivistys”, but it implies something of personal refinement and development. So borrowed words used in Finnish are thought of somewhat as signs of cultural refinement. Nevertheless, there is an intense effort to find alternatives to these “sivistyssanat” in day to day use. The inventive ways of using the basic etymological building blocks of Finnish to develop conceptual equivalents to terms used in English, German, French and Russian is an art form unto itself here. Some of my favorites:

unique –– “ainutlaatuinen” -> literally “of a solitary quality”

simple –– “yksinkertainen” -> literally “of a one time sort”

complex –– “monimutkainen” -> literally “having many twists/turns”

This week I became aware of another Finnish alternative to a particular borrowed term: I’ve always freely used a Finlandized variation on the English word “spontaneous” when speaking Finnish: “spontaaninen”. A paper by one of my university course-mates, however, pointed out that the properly Finnish term for this is “omaehtoinen” –– literally “having one’s own conditions”. In other words the Finnish understanding of spontaneous action is to do things on your own terms, not being submitted to conditions set by others. I had to ask about this, because in many ways this strikes me as an interesting linguistic effort, but a bit of a near miss conceptually. Our professor confirmed that this is a standardized official translation, but the philosophical contemplation of how spontaneity actually works would be a long discussion unto itself.  Fair enough. So for this weekend’s blog I’ll just toss out my own preliminary perspectives on the meaning and value of spontaneity as it relates to the cultures I’ve lived in, and open the matter up for further debate here if anyone is interested.

The process of setting standards to live by is indeed an interesting one to analyze. There are animal trainers which will tell you that “an obedient dog is a happy dog,” and there might be some truth to the adage. Continuous contests of wills between the dog and the humans in question make everyone a bit stressed and frustrated; if the four-legged family member has accepted a more submissive role within the pack that is completely natural and satisfying for the dog, and for all others concerned. That is not to say, however, that in order to have a satisfied life the dog should lose its own will and personality entirely; in my opinion quite the opposite. A dog has a greater degree of satisfaction in life, and makes a more satisfying companion for humans, when it can decide some things for itself, and communicate its own joys, interests and desires to other members of the family at times.

My old dog Mac is generally well house-broken and capable of following most necessary commands for contented life with a family, but he is also quite prone to do things occasionally according to conditions he sets for himself. In his old age he is deaf as a post, and he tends to use that as a bit of an excuse for wandering off in the directions of interesting smells. He knows where the limits of his territory are supposed to run, according to the conditions set for him by others, and when he reaches those limits he generally stops to check as to whether or not there is anyone interested in enforcing his boundaries. If not, he will happily wander off in search of whatever adventure life has to offer.

Mac on a spontaneous trip to the beach last year.

Mac on a spontaneous trip we took to the beach last year (my spontaneous decision, not his ).

If any blame needs to be assigned for Mac’s tendencies in that regard it falls squarely on me. It could be said that he’s sort of been socialized into my own bad habits: doing things less according to standardized norms and more according to whatever seems workable on any given occasion. This goes with the territory of being what Jungian analysts refer to as a type-P (for “perceiving”) as opposed to a type-J (for “judging”) personality, and in that regard I admit to being something of an extreme case. I tend to allow myself to work on things that interest me in the moments when they interest me, even if that totally screws up my sleep schedule at times. I tend to leave things where they lay and deal with cleaning tasks and the like only when the clutter becomes a practical hindrance to my random activities. I have to put a serious effort into being places and doing things according to an agreed schedule; it never comes naturally to me. I don’t consider myself to be lazy, just… overly spontaneous. That spontaneity allows me to be inventive, humorous, problem-solving and personally open to the sort of surprises life always throws at us in ways that J-types have more difficulty with.

But this doesn’t mean that I consider myself to be a better person than the J-types. Nor do I consider them to be less free than I am in the sense of being able to set their own conditions in life. When I visit with the sort of friends who always have a place for everything and everything in its place –– who have a regular schedule that they keep week in and week out that they don’t want to have disturbed –– I can see that they have their own sort of freedom: they have the ability to set their own rules in ways that enable them to feel entirely in control of their own lives. The rules they follow are ones they have fully chosen to adopt, at least as completely as I am capable of choosing when I allow myself to do things more randomly. When I am their guest I try to make a point of not stealing their sense of control from them by messing with their carefully structured lifestyles, and when they come to visit me I try to make some effort to have the place at least minimally sanitary and organized according to socially accepted principles. Inevitably I slip somewhat and I try their patience at least as much as they try mine, but among those I care about and who care about me in return we’ve learned to deal with that and accept each other in spite of our differences.

This comes to where I would question the Finnish etymology for their word for spontaneity: I agree that freedom has something to do with setting your own conditions, but I would argue that J-types are more thorough in setting and consciously owning such conditions, whereas we P-types are more properly spontaneous in terms of being capable of doing things without dependence on plan or structure.

There are many, however, who would say that those of us who live without properly structured guidelines for our lives lack a fundamental sort of freedom. Whereas I might be prone to think of my more organized friends as “slaves to the clock,” they could just as justifiably label me as a slave to my own uncontrolled whims. This can be tied to an idea that, like the obedient dog, humans can only be properly in harmony with life when they are able to do things rationally and logically. Some theologians would go as far as to say that the fall of mankind that got us kicked out of the Garden of Eden had to do with losing our capacity for submission to God’s completely rational and transcendentally ordered standards by drifting off to do “our own thing”; and the practical goal of religious redemption should be to enable us to return to a more completely rationally organized and self-disciplined and thus sinless state. Their savior, they believe, came to make life more controllable and less unpredictable and messy. I am more inclined to believe that our savior came to embrace life in all of its structure breaking messiness –– to heal the sick and spontaneously pluck grain on the Sabbath –– and to enable us to accept all of the things about ourselves and each other that we can never control and predict as much as we’d like to.

What is worth recognizing here though is that neither the P-types nor the J-types have a right to remake God in their own image –– the greatest and most dangerous of religious temptations, that we never completely escape from. What Jesus preached was that we should place a personal attachment with God ahead of all other pursuits in life, and that we should learn to empathize with those around us as completely as possible: the twin commandment of love. This means P-types having compassion on J-types in spite of what we might in Freudian terms call their anal fixations, and J-types having compassion on P-types in spite of their slovenly lack of discipline at times.

Meanwhile, when it comes to a sense of freedom in terms of both self-regulation and spontaneity, we are confronted with the question of raw determinism and what, if anything, we can do to escape it –– or if it really is worth escaping from in the questionable event that it is possible. What is the form of slavery that we need most to liberate ourselves from? What addictions are most dangerous to the process of learning to thrive in our most basic human essence (which religious folk call “the image of God” within us)?

My take is that this is a very individual question. Each of us is faced with a variety of things that functionally prevent us from being able to live at harmony with ourselves and each other. Some of these are problems caused by holding ourselves and each other to overly strict abstract standards that have little to do with the genuine process of human thriving. Some of these problems are caused by a lack of impulse control and capacity for delayed gratification. Pretty much everyone I know has to struggle for balance between these factors so as to achieve a lifestyle that would generally be regarded as “free”.

Such is my spontaneous deliberation on the contrast between spontaneity and living according to one’s own conditions. If native Finns in particular would like to challenge my perspective I’d be more than happy to spontaneously discuss the matter further and perhaps adjust my standards.


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Filed under Empathy, Ethics, Happiness, Love, Philosophy, Religion, Respectability

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