Some of us manage the conditions and circumstances of autonomy as a serious business that calls for a wide-ranging, socially conscious responsibility. Others of us think of autonomy as a game to be won. Either way, we are fenced in by rules and ideals toward which we have an ambivalent attitude. We appreciate that they keep others in check and are disturbed when people break rules but aren’t punished. On the other hand, we are frustrated when they present an obstacle to what we want. When we think autonomy is a game, we give ourselves a lot of leeway to “get away with” or corruptly rationalize socially irresponsible behavior in pursuit of the win.
The most obvious condition and circumstance by which we are undeniably fenced in is our nature. We’re always at its effect, its immediacy. All of us wrestle with the primal force of our nature every day. We’re fortunate if we’re healthy and not challenged by disease, poverty, or chromosome-determined but socially unacceptable wants and needs.
We’re also restricted by the binding dictates of the social reality we’re inserted into. Our own private immediacy drives us to want what we want and to do what we do, but America’s rules and ideals direct us, too. When the two forces battle, we find ourselves—child and adult alike—with a tension-filled, subjective conflict that may inhibit our ability to act rationally and responsibly and ultimately, to flourish.
In fact, this push/pull situation presents what I refer to as a lifelong struggle with the subjective form of autonomy offered in America. This is the individual freedom we are expected to employ given the fact that we are sovereign, subject to the human-made, socially established rules and ideals that shape life in America.
Instinctively at the effect of our natural biology, we are also culturally at the effect of, for example, contemporary politics, religious tradition, Scoreboard and the inevitability of competition for everything we want. Thought to be precipitated by both nature and the pressures of the external world, an almost always present status anxiety begins to affect us when we’re young children and lasts throughout our lives.
The good news is that in a land of enormous opportunity, these rules and ideals that restrain us can also propel us. Otherwise said, we are honor bound to the challenge of bearing the burden or following the rules of individual freedom in America. But we are also the supreme governing authority within the space we occupy. We are entrepreneurs of how we think, communicate, work, play and love.
Autonomy and Life is a philosophy, a meta-behavioral discipline reflective of the substantive claim we are required to make on ourselves. Supported by our personal integrity, we are asked to effectively manage the lifelong struggle I described above.
This philosophy asks us to extend and defend ourselves in accord with what I refer to as a transformative exchange. Namely, that we hold to America’s ordered or ruled autonomy. In exchange for this choice, we have access to a harmonious quality of life. This substantive stand on ourselves explores the genius of the national experiment and plays out in the three “theaters” that consume our lives. These are our utility (contribution or productivity); our domesticity (or private lives); and our cultural (or intellectual) curiosity.
When we perceive autonomy as an act of the sovereign subject self-regulating its socially conscious responsibility, we accept the rules and the ideals that help us exercise our freedom. They shape our behavior and ask us to address not only our own self-interest but to extend our care and concern to the wellbeing of others.
On the other hand, when we perceive autonomy as a game to be won, we allow ourselves to ruthlessly pursue victory and, where deemed necessary, to run roughshod over the rules and ideals that protect civil rights and the social fabric of our nation.
Our democracy requires that we govern ourselves in the light of its principles. Autonomy is far more than a game to be won. Our thoughtful practice of it gives rise to an honorable life and to an environment in which we, and those who depend on us, can Flourish. Thrive. Belong.
Lastly, to be sure, I enjoy your company in this endeavor to see autonomy rightly.
Arnold Siegel is the founder of Autonomy and Life and the leader of its Retreat Workshops and Advanced Classes. Visit autonomyandlife.com for more information.