A Free Spirit or Free in Spirit?

When we want to say someone’s a little cuckoo but endearing, we might call them “a free spirit.” In my parents’ generation, a lot of “68ers” — people involved in the civil movement of 1968 — fit that description. Initially, they might have made their own laundry detergent, stopped washing their armpits, or refused to eat anything that’s not green. Later, they were instrumental in bringing about social change.

A free spirit is someone who can’t be contained. They will live by their own rules. It’s a tempting attitude, especially for the young, but it bears consequences.

If you keep sampling the dating market because new relationships and casual sex are so much fun, you might stay a bachelorette forever, even if you don’t want to. If you always insist on being the square peg in a round hole at work, be it via your outfits or your contempt for “the man,” you might forever struggle to make ends meet. Free spirits are free to be everything but consistent. Any “system” rubs them the wrong way — but sometimes, systems are both comfortable and useful.

I was never a free spirit. I usually choose compliance. Whenever there’s a path to avoid hassle, stress, and confrontation, I try to take it, sometimes at my own expense. I enjoy systems. I like my routines. I don’t mind quiet and repetition. That, too, has its ups and downs.

If you marry the first person who seems into you, you might end up in a long yet unhappy marriage. If you keep your head down at work too much, everyone will start dropping their unwanted tasks in your lap. When consistency feels comfortable, it’s hard to know when to break it, but sometimes, change is the only good way forward. Systems are great as long as they function, but when they fail, they usually fail altogether.

So, what are we to do? A free spirit or a compliant worker bee? Too much freedom or too little? I can only speak for myself, but I feel there is a third path: Even if we decide to fall in line, we can still be free in spirit. We don’t need to wear all of us on our sleeves at all times. We can practice freedom in private and, maybe most of all, in our imagination.

I don’t travel as much as I used to. Every change of location puts a serious dent in my output, and I’ve got books to write. But I explore the world all the time. I listen to Korean pop music, a China-themed movie soundtrack, or go to a concert at the Hollywood Bowl right on Youtube. I can see pictures from other people’s travel experiences, and when I want to visit a zen garden, all I have to do is close my eyes as the little waterfall ripples along in my WeWork’s back yard.

Your thoughts are yours. No one can tell you where to go or what to do in your mind. Sometimes, it’s important we demand a change for all of us. In moments like that, people like the 68ers must come together. Most of the time, however, it’s perfectly okay to swim with the crowd, yet be free in spirit.