Free as a Bird

A raven in flight over the Arizona desert
A raven in flight over the Ehrenberg, Arizona desert

Free as a bird. It’s a common expression in American English, but what exactly does it mean?

Human beings have an innate desire for freedom. We want to be free from oppression, free from financial enslavement, and free from excessive regulation or government control. We also, unfortunately, too often want to be free of moral and ethical constraints.

In our “civilized,” modern world, most people live cut off from nature. Many people have no idea where their food comes from (it is not a grocery store), where their water comes from (it is not the tap or a bottle), about the rhythms of the sun and moon, or about natural (and unnatural) weather patterns and trends. Why? It is because our modern world has insulated us from each of these natural experiences - and many more.

Thus it is, when we see a wild animal acting freely, that we sometimes feel a pang of envy. That pang reminds us that we have traded our birthrights as free men and women for the comforts and conveniences of modern life. We have exchanged our natural environment for an artificial one that insulates us from the real world, but this exchange comes at a steep cost.

To live as free as a bird is still possible, but achieving it requires trading many of the comforts to which we have become accustomed. Freedom, after all, is never really free. Freedom, whether spiritual, financial, or lifestyle, necessarily requires sacrifice. You can live as free as a wild animal, and as free as many humans have indeed lived throughout history, but not with a mortgage, utility bills, car payment, and most of the other enslavements of modern life. In other words, you will need to sacrifice many “comforts” in order to be free.

The American philosopher Henry David Thoreau understood this concept clearly. Consider his perspective on luxuries and comforts:

“Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meager life than the poor.”

There are countless examples of philosophers, saints, and mystics throughout the ages who discovered that the path toward freedom, enlightenment, and growth involved voluntarily simplicity. Setting aside the distractions and encumbrances that we have become accustomed to is often an essential step in the journey toward a more more intentional, meaningful, and enlightened life.