On Freedom

“Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose” Janis Joplin

She sobs into the phone and I can picture her face. Elegant, blonde, intelligent, inquisitive, and beautiful. She is the ideal Stanford student. I am her best friend, it is a strange circumstance. She was an activist in conservative circles, and taught me to wear pearls. I was a radical activist for the working classes and taught her how to get vomit out of a carpet. She is my best Stanford girlfriend. I love her, and we will be close for the rest of our lives, no matter how far away we are from one another. So the tears hurt me because they tell the pain of someone I care for deeply.

We are talking about her major. She is one of the last friends of mine to choose her major officially. She also changed her mind so many times. When I met her, just at the start of freshman year, she told me linguistics or comp lit. She speaks 5 languages. We became friends after the first day of PWR because she is brilliant and she liked the way I asked questions and she liked the way that she could learn from me. I liked the way she asked questions, the tenderness with which this beautiful, incredibly privileged white girl empathized with my story.

Before long, she is reminded that she has to do a “hard science.” She enrolls in bio and hates her life for sophomore year. Her classes no longer fascinate her. We stop talking about her classes and talk about current events and life. Not long after that, the majority of our conversations will become about the big events. She wants to get married. She wants to work. She isn’t sure how to do both.

She calls me because the decision to declare her major is coming and she is trying to figure out how she can do something without angering her parents, something that will be intellectually engaging for her. I remind her she wanted to do linguistics. She says, “I know.” Her parents have more intellectual and financial privilege than I could even wrap my head around; she taught me how to code switch into Stanford speak. She can’t do that she says, it has to be a hard science or engineering. We talk about how Bio or HumBio might work and how she can spin it. I remind her about comp lit. She cries. She knows it just isn’t an option.

She knows everything about my childhood. She says, “What happened to you is horrific and yet, sometimes I think you are freer than I am.” I was, I am, I am freer than her. I am freer than almost anyone I know.

When we talk about my endurance and ask how I survived, I sometimes forget that besides my intelligence I had something fundamentally more important. If you look at the survivors of repressive regimes, they had it too. They were conscious. They knew that life could be different and that their lives had meaning, for no other reason than because they were human beings. Lots of very smart people commit suicide; we’ve had multiple suicides in my family. The elite schools have suicides every year. And yet despite the fact that I have one of the worst childhoods I’ve ever heard of and a very serious disability, I am alive. During WWII, we see people like Albert Camus and Elie Wiesel who resist even under the most oppressive conditions. They are able to do this because they value their humanity, their consciousness and freedom, more than they do comfort and the easy way out. So did Socrates, Malcolm X and MLK. They decided that if they had to make the choice between consciousness and death they chose consciousness. These are the people who change things. If you want to cause social change you better develop that consciousness. When we live in a world where no one has to make that choice anymore, that is when our society can be called just. That is what it means to have freedom. That is what it means to be human.

This served as the processing I did for the lecture I gave my seniors today. Some of them cried.


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