The Problem of Freedom


The rough, shadowed texture of a log fallen across a meandering stream, the scattered sparkles of the water as it murmurs briefly to a rock it passes, the deep, barely moving green of the leafy tunnel that shrouds the gently dancing blue beneath -these are what I know of freedom: permission to imagine, permission to believe… Nothing else –nothing, at least, that matters more… As Voltaire said, Man is free at the moment he wishes to be…

I’m not sure what I’m supposed to envisage when the topic arises as it does sometimes in the office. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to say, or how I’m expected to react. Freedom is a charged word. A troubled word. It so often refers to an imaginary, or a that-which-is-not. It is contextually defined, and so often spiritually embossed. Like Goodness, or Happiness, it is something to which we are expected to aspire, and because we can never assure ourselves that we possess it, the search, like that for the end of the rainbow, is never done.

It is also a partitioned concept, like being freed from a cage that is locked in a closet that is locked in a room that is locked in a house… To escape from one thing is always to be imprisoned in another –the escape from the innermost Russian doll only to be trapped within the next in line. Freedom, I had always thought, is simply where and when you are; it is a frame of mind, not a frame of circumstance. But I’m not so certain anymore…

This problem of freedom surfaced one day in the office, although I didn’t recognize it at first. The more curious of my obstetrical patients often wax philosophical at unexpected moments. I didn’t think Thira was one of those, I have to admit, but pregnancy –especially the first- has a way of changing a person. Opening them up like the petals of a flower in the morning sunshine. And Thira was a flower. A thin, short woman, she was a Greek with smiling eyes, and spoke with an accent that enchanted me each time we met. I think I sometimes asked her questions just to hear her talk.

But occasionally, she felt it was her turn to ask, and one day, midway through her third trimester, when talk of contractions and labour occupied most of our time together, she suddenly turned serious and her iconic smile disappeared for a worried moment. “Doctor,” she said after I had listened to the baby’s heart beat, “What does the baby’s movement mean?”

I was busy entering in my measurements and the heart rate in the chart, so I didn’t even look up. “What do you mean, Thira?”

“Well, she used to be so predictable. She’d kick after I ate dinner and then start rolling around about ten o’clock when I was in bed. Like she sort of knew what I was doing and was signalling me to say hello. Showing off…”

I looked up for a moment from the chart and smiled. “But you said, ‘used to’…”

The worried look resurfaced. “Well, last night she didn’t stop. She just kept rolling and kicking all night. At first I thought maybe it was the way I was lying in bed, but she kept it up no matter what I did. The kicking even got worse when I got up.” She took a deep breath and looked at the floor. “Okay if I ask you a silly question?” I nodded reassuringly. “Well… I keep thinking she feels trapped in there. I mean, it’s a pretty small space and she’s growing… Wouldn’t it be like being trapped in a small elevator when the electricity and the lights go off?”

I’d never actually considered whether a fetus would –or could- feel imprisoned before. My first thought was to wonder whether the baby, rather than feeling trapped, was actually feeling stressed for some reason –an accident with its umbilical cord, for example, or maybe a change in the placental circulation. I molded my facial expression into neutral so as not to alarm her. “Well, I would think that the uterine cavity space and the darkness is all she’s ever known, Thira. She must be used to it by now, don’t you think?”

She shrugged and painted an anxious smile on her lips. “I suppose… But what if she’s panicking because she’s just discovered she’s trapped? That after all this time, she realizes she’s not actually free?”

I said that before we assumed something like that, it would probably make sense to be sure the baby wasn’t telling us it was in trouble. I reassured her as best I could and sent her right over to the hospital for a non-stress test (NST) to assess the baby’s heart rate in response to its environment; its own movements for example would be the equivalent of someone doing exercise and should raise the heart rate briefly. If there was no change in the rate, or worse, a fall in the rate, it would be unusual and unexpected at the very least. It might signify fetal distress.

The NST was fortunately completely reassuring, as was a bedside ultrasound we did to visualize the umbilical cord and the amount of fluid around the baby. Thira still seemed concerned, though. “I still think she was telling me something, doctor.”

I sat down on the bed beside her. “Well, we can’t find anything wrong, so what do you think she is trying to tell you, Thira? What does she want?”

A weary smile appeared from nowhere. “Freedom, doctor. She wants her freedom.”

I was struck by Thira’s use of the word ‘freedom’ all the time. She didn’t appear at all surprised that there didn’t seem to be any problem we could find with the baby: no umbilical cord around its neck, no decreased amniotic fluid around it, no worrisome changes in the NST. And when I once again reassured her about the findings, she responded with another shrug.

“How can any of your tests measure the need for freedom, doctor? I’m sure most prisoners have normal heart rates, normal responses to exercise…” She stopped talking and looked in my eyes for a moment. “It’s only when you look in their eyes you can tell something is missing. Freedom can’t be tested, I don’t think…”

I had to process that for a moment. “But…  But you’re only 34…” I had to look at the chart I was holding. “34 weeks and 4 days pregnant. Your due date isn’t until 40 weeks… Surely your baby is far too young to appreciate such an abstract thing as Freedom.” I was proud of that response; I thought I had her.

Her face wrinkled in curiosity at my explanation. “I can calm my baby down by talking to her. She seems to respond if there’s music in the room… That’s pretty abstract, don’t you think?”

I blinked. I couldn’t think of another response. But I wondered if this was really cause and effect, or maternal attribution.

“When do babies start to think anyway?” she asked and scrutinized my face. Then she paused for a moment. “Only as soon as they’re born –freed?” she continued after she could see I wasn’t able to answer. “And what about the increasing number of studies showing the abstract conceptual abilities of even young babies?” I must have had a blank look. “Have you read that book: The Philosophical Baby, by Alison Gopnik…?” I hadn’t, actually. “There are others, too,” she said, reading my expression.

“But…” I shook my head slowly in -what? Desperation? Frustration? Or maybe in fascination at something about which only a mother could be convinced.

“If babies only a few months old can demonstrate a sense of injustice or fairness in the studies researchers do with them; if they can be seen reacting to things that seem to them to be unusual or unacceptable, then why would it be so hard to believe they could also have a simple concept of Freedom?”

I have to admit that I didn’t have an answer for Thira, although she certainly opened up a few questions that still trouble me -a Pandora’s box. Is the desire for Freedom innate –like curiosity, the desire to learn, or the impetus to find and create Beauty? Is it so abstract that it doesn’t even exist outside the mind as I said at the start? And is it so integral to our existence, that we need to manufacture it when we don’t think it’s there? There is a problem with Freedom I think: knowing what it is… and where. But maybe Robert Frost got it right: ‘You have freedom when you’re easy in your harness.’  Maybe it’s as simple as that.

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