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Love and freedom

Have you seen the wonderful animated feature Bolt?

It’s about a dog who has no idea he isn’t the superdog he plays on TV. He dearly loves his girl Penny who stars in the show with him. But because he views himself as her sole protection against ever-threatening evil, he’s forever tense, forever on guard. Never, but ever, does he relax, play, and just enjoy life.

Only when fate leaves him lost on the streets (far from Penny and without his special-effects superpowers) does he learn to be himself, love life — and become a real hero.

Yeah, it’s just a movie and Bolt is just a cartoon dog. But recent blog comments and email exchanges with a reader make me think some of us could learn from him.

Why do we choose — and it is a choice — to be so freaking grim? Why do so many of us feel that if we’re not at some psychological watch-post 24 hours a day we’re somehow failing in our duty to Penny freedom?

Yes, our freedom is imperiled. Every person reading this is well aware of that. We could all list hundreds of threats to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And of course, if we actually cherish freedom, we’ll be doing something(s) to keep it.

But if we actually cherish freedom, we’ll also enjoy what we have of it. And what we have of life. And we’ll balance the “fighting” side of our lives with the “living” side.

Right now. Not in some imaginary future when all the politicians and bureaucrats have gotten out of our way and the handful of remaining laws (if any) are to our personal satisfaction.

But NOW. Because if we can’t embrace our freedom now, when can we?


Saturday the New York Times had a wonderful commentary, “The Brain on Love.” I hope everybody will read it — even those of you who balk at registration.

While the piece focuses on personal relationships, family and romantic, the underlying truth of it is way bigger.

Scientists now know that the brain not only re-programs itself constantly, but physically changes in response to information and emotions we “feed” it. Years ago, the Mankato Nun Study revealed that old ladies who had lively minds and set themselves new challenges went right on functioning, even when autopsies eventually showed they had Alzheimers. Their brains were actually growing around the damage. Their Alzheimer-afflicted counterparts who didn’t “grow their brains” showed more effects of the disease. It was big psychological and physiological news.

Today we know much more — including the fact that our emotions shape our brain, which in turn shapes our emotions.

In other words, if we keep ourselves bundled up in anxiety and watchfulness, anxiety and watchfulness is what we reinforce. It’s what we program — and build — our brains to do. And you know what? If we’re like that, we’d just continue being like that even if freedom dropped on us from outer space.

On the other hand, even if we have a negative tendency born or programmed into us by our past, we have the power not only to change it, but in doing so, to reinforce and “grow” the new positive.

Thousands of activists have discovered that their best, most effective activism comes only after they’re forced to be idle for a while (e.g. they’re sent to jail or prison). Millions of creative people have had the experience of getting the Big Great Idea only after they stop beating their brains on something and take a walk or go to sleep or play with the dog. They change the pattern, begin the rebuild. By turning away.

Enjoying life is not a sin. Blowing off the responsibilities of freedom now and then is not a crime. Ignoring the news is not a dereliction of duty. Failing to duck and cover every time some Internet ranter screams that the sky is falling is not irresponsible or foolish.

Very, very much to the contrary, loving life, keeping a balanced perspective, and enjoying what we have is a means of cherishing freedom, understanding freedom — and building our brains to be better “freedom machines.”

Can it be overdone? Of course, there are millions who live in a rosy oblivion, never seeing the scary stuff and never doing anything to preserve the good they have. Maybe they need to reprogram for the opposite traits.

But we’re not them. If you’re here reading this, you’re not them.

Too many of us are more like Bolt. If we don’t reprogram ourselves to be less grim, less reactive, and lighter in our lives, we’ll go to our graves as nervous — and unfree — wrecks.


  1. Teresa Sue
    Teresa Sue March 26, 2012 5:50 am

    That, my friend, is the gospel truth. I’m at a point where I’m thinking I need a break, because, when I was a kid I don’t remember thinking “I want to be a jaded liberty freak when I grow up.” Jeesh, I need to go play in the dirt and do something that I can actually see some progress on.

  2. Stryder
    Stryder March 26, 2012 5:51 am

    Very good article! We are what we think has long been a mantra of mine. Many of us live in the past or for the future forgetting that it’s this, the present, that things are happening.

  3. Matt, another
    Matt, another March 26, 2012 7:26 am

    Somebody once wrote, “The Ultimate Answer to Kings is a good belly laugh.”

    I have agreed whole heartedly since the first time I read it. I am often in trouble because on the surface I don’t take much of anything seriously. People miss the fact that the joyous, ridiculing exterior is just one layer and succeeding layers are observing, plotting and living with great abandon. Just like age you are as free as you feel.

  4. Joel
    Joel March 26, 2012 8:18 am

    Brava, Claire.

  5. Claire
    Claire March 26, 2012 8:41 am

    Grazie, Joel. Thank you, all. (And I see that Matt, Another immediately thinks of you, Joel …)

  6. Pat
    Pat March 26, 2012 9:04 am

    “People miss the fact that the joyous, ridiculing exterior is just one layer and succeeding layers are observing, plotting and living with great abandon.”

    Matt, another – You are a man of great wisdom! Even the most honest person is made of many layers, most of which are not revealed at any one time. (Especially is this true online, where no one ever gets to really know another person fully.)

    “Today we know much more — including the fact that our emotions shape our brain, which in turn shapes our emotions.”

    Equally true of both the intellectual as well as the physical brain. Someone (Nathaniel Branden? — I’m not sure who) once said (I paraphrase) that emotions tell us how we feel; reason tells us why we feel it. I would add that our will, i.e. our sense of purpose, determines what we do about it. And while the will is shaped by both genes and environment, it too can be thrown off-course by circumstances and by emotions, if we allow it.

  7. EN
    EN March 26, 2012 10:28 am

    Time is finite for us all and each day we miss is just one less we have to live. If we can’t have a glass of wine with a friend, kiss someone in the moment, have a good laugh at an Obama Speech, or enjoy a sunny afternoon, then there is no mythical future where these things will be enjoyed. We are creatures of habit and Claire nailed it, “It’s what we program — and build — our brains to do”. If you hate today, you’ll hate tomorrow, regardless of how good or bad things turn out because we’ve programmed it. Does anyone else wonder what will happen to all those lost souls out there who think that everyone’s a silly sheep? After all, if your opinion of humanity is dismissive (at best), where will you ever find your own place in the world that’s teeming with humanity? At worst, if it all does “go to guns”, what happens to a person who hates most humans in that situation? Where will they end up when given the power of the gun? I choose life now, TODAY, because life exists. There’s less time with every second that goes by to enjoy it, let alone enjoy it after “creating” it in some mythical future.

  8. Claire
    Claire March 26, 2012 10:35 am

    Bravo, EN. Well said. And YOU were the person who directly inspired the post, as I’m sure you’ve already figured.

  9. Beth
    Beth March 26, 2012 11:00 am

    Yes, oh yes, a thousand times YES! Thanks, Claire.

  10. Gordon
    Gordon March 26, 2012 3:52 pm

    This seems wise. I just hope it’s not too late…

  11. Claire
    Claire March 26, 2012 4:22 pm

    Never too late, Gordon. Never too late …

  12. Kevin Wilmeth
    Kevin Wilmeth March 26, 2012 5:22 pm

    See, this is why Claire is indispensable. A basic observation that I, at least, need to be reminded of at intervals. Shared.

    I struggle to communicate the message effectively, even when I am successfully observing it. And frustration does get the better of me, too often.

    Thank you, Claire, for the reminder.

  13. Claire
    Claire March 26, 2012 6:54 pm

    Ah, Kevin. You are a gentleman — and a damnfine writer. And if I occasionally help keep you going, posts like yours help me (and Joel, too, I’m sure) stay on track. You know how it is when you write; sometimes your words just seem to fall into a void & you wonder if anyone hears, cares, or is affected. It helps sometimes to know those words do matter.

  14. Mary Lou
    Mary Lou March 26, 2012 6:54 pm

    Definitely! Take time to smell the roses, play with the dogs, chase the cats, ride the horses, watch the sunset, look at the stars … live in the moment, live ‘like a dog’, I always say:-), live in the glorious ‘now’ …

  15. naturegirl
    naturegirl March 27, 2012 12:42 am

    As I read all that Claire wrote (beautiful truth to all of it) I was expecting any second for her to take it one notch ahead…..People hold tight to just about anything out of fear – fear of loss, fear of change, fear of the unknown, a million variety of fears….and usually end up losing what they had so much “fear was going to happen”…..Plus, there are a million ways “to lose” as there are lists of fears…..

    Part of changing an attitude includes a “letting go” – let go of fear, of holding on to tight, of fighting to hard or to long or the wrong way, worry and overthinking and stressing oneself out. Sometimes the greatest freedom a person can ever experience is the feeling that happens after letting go. Sometimes that letting go is decided by some outside influence, and not always our decisions. The minute you choose to no longer obsess over what you are (or aren’t) losing, there’s a blissful freedom -yes, a freedom- to replace that deep hole…..

    At the core of any type of freedom is being able to choose what you really want. And then going out to get it, or preserve it, or even figure out what it really is. Freedom begins in the brain, as long as we don’t rationalize it away. Whomever said that their freedom can never be taken away because it’s in their spirit, knew exactly what they were talking about.

    Even if the world was perfect and there were no complaints or lack of anything, LIFE is still to short to not enjoy every single moment or experience right now. In all of our fears, and worries, and losses there are lessons to learn and new doors that open to something you may never have thought of otherwise. As long as people keep their eyes and minds open; know what is right for them.

    I’m not a “new ager” and find much of that stuff silly. I had to realize what I have just talked about, the hard way, and lived through it. So far.

  16. MamaLiberty
    MamaLiberty March 27, 2012 5:38 am

    So true. Be careful what you ask for, you may get it.

  17. Claire
    Claire March 27, 2012 6:08 am

    naturegirl — You did a fine job on that “notch” yourself. Amen.

  18. EN
    EN March 27, 2012 11:04 am

    Couldn’t agree more NG. The part of about “new doors that open”, is particularly important. For all the less than optimum things that have happened to me there has always been a silver lining that led to something wonderful. One just has to keep their head up and eyes open so as not to miss the door.

  19. naturegirl
    naturegirl March 27, 2012 4:02 pm

    Thank you 🙂 I wasn’t sure that came out as well as it sounded in my brain…..Apparently it did, yea! LOL…

  20. Bubba Man
    Bubba Man March 28, 2012 3:24 pm

    You can’t stay at RED all the time (not even YELLOW), or you will do some serious damage to yourself. You’ve got to cycle down to WHITE and remember that life is for living for a while before you can go back on watch. Even if you are a father of daughters.

  21. furrydoc
    furrydoc March 28, 2012 11:38 pm

    just what I needed to hear, now maybe I can get some sleep.

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