There is a story about a dog leashed to a pole. Seeking freedom from the pole, it pulled against its leash. It bit its leash. It barked at everyone passing by. It yelped and it cried unceasingly. Finally its owner came and unleashed the dog. Did it then pounce away, as quickly as it could, away from the pole? It did not. Rather, it sat in the same place, quietly and contentedly. The lesson here is, supposedly, that we crave freedom as an ideology. We may continue to live the same way we did when we were leashed, but this time we are choosing to do so. That choice is what is important to our dignity. We value freedom itself; the exercise of freedom need not be any different than when we are leashed. However, there may be a different lesson here, namely, that when we are leashed long enough, we cease to understand what it means to be free. We become habituated to our prison, even as we hate it. Then, when we become unleashed, we forget what to do with our freedom. We forget how we can change, what opportunities are available, what joy there is in seizing infinite possibilities. So we sit paralyzed like the dog unleashed, unmoved.
It is imperative to understand whether we are free. Markers of freedom well spent would include flourishing, and happiness in having chosen this life, this career, this firm, this car, this watch, this pen. And happy consequences: this reputation, this wealth, this family, this set of colleagues and friends. But if we are the unleashed dog, perhaps we can question the value of these choices and their consequences. We have closed our minds to opportunities without, and have entrenched ourselves to this life within. Is freedom well spent, five years into call, with the same firm, litigating cases, catering to clients, climbing the ladder to partnership? Is freedom well spent, fifteen years in, jumping from firm to firm, exploring a branch of practice long exhausted? Is freedom well spent, thirty years in, following the path long trodden, stepping out of the lawyer’s shoes and into its neighbour, as mediator or arbiter of justice?
We don’t have the answers here. Take the measure of happiness and reconsider the lost fruits of choice. Do opportunities lie in wait, ready to be seized? We speak not of opportunities of career advancement contemplated in the day-to-day; but opportunities lurking in the imagination, a yearning and a call long ignored, a restlessness stayed, a flame languishing but not yet extinguished? Is it possible to break a trail of adventure, of travel, of love, of athletic pursuit, of bread-making, of farming, of writing, of music, of acting, of abilities discovered but ignored? It is, but these paths are oft left untold – for who, having exercised freedom well and found one’s true calling, would waste time talking about it?
This is a call for nothing more than meditated introspection, to answer a fundamental life question: am I free, or simply a dog unleashed?