I visited Dublin in the midst of my search for freedom from an old life. At the time, I did not know that I would soon decide to couch-surf around the world. I was just looking to get out of New York City and the unfulfilling routine I was falling into, and a final round interview with a tech giant in Ireland seemed like the answer.
Prior to visiting, I could paint my impression of Ireland in broad strokes: I knew that it has spectacular nature, the people are friendly, the weather is deplorable, and it is *not* part of the U.K. (Northern Ireland is). I was also vaguely familiar with the country's past political struggles, including the Great Famine of 1845-52 that drove many migrants to the U.S., its tireless fight against Britain in the Independence War of 1919-21, a long-standing conflict between Catholics and Protestants, and the country's recent rise from poverty due to the tech industry boom in Dublin. Other than the information I gleaned from school and word-of-mouth, I admittedly hadn't given Ireland much thought.
I was mesmerized by Dublin's effervescent green parks, the simple elegance of British and Gaelic architecture, and the countless rows of vibrant, colorfully painted doors peppering the streets. More notable, however, were the people: the Irish's friendliness and hospitality is commonly touted as the country's trademark, and although I did not experience it right away (my visit began with the hotel's staff cluelessness to my arrival and a chase out of the park at dusk by an angry security guard), I soon found that there was much to learn from the Irish mindset.
What I most admired about the Irish was their deep-seated conviction to protect their freedom without compromising integrity. While the Irish have long struggled with their independence, they never lost their amicability. When I commended this trait to one of the locals I met, she joked that Irish friendliness is a by-product of a populace that until recently has only known poverty. Never having much to lose, she said, made it much easier to give: while they didn't have much material wealth, their way of being was worth protecting despite difficult circumstances.
My time in Ireland helped me understand that personal freedom is not easily acquired - rather, it is difficult to obtain, harder to sustain, and a commitment that we must actively work towards keeping.
Ireland knows something about freedom. Here is what it taught me.
There's an abyss between wanting freedom and taking responsibility for it
When I speak of freedom, I'm not talking about the great heroes of history who won independence wars or the underdogs who fought against their oppressors. Think smaller than that: I'm talking about you and me. I'm talking about that dream you've always wanted to pursue but never tried to because you were afraid of what people would think; that suffocating relationship you no longer want to be a part of but can't handle the insecurity of walking away from; the job you desperately hate but can't bring yourself to quit because not knowing what to do with your newfound freedom feels unbearable.
The struggle for freedom will always be there. The question is whether you want it badly enough to deal with the consequences once you decide to reach for it.
I may have been brave enough to spontaneously get on a plane to Dublin, but in all honesty, deep down I didn't want that job. Taking that offer would have meant packing up my life in New York City to move to a foreign country and industry within a few months' time. Which would be the change I thought I was looking for, except I wasn't ready. I was enamored with the idea of freedom from my current life, but wholly unprepared to deal with the realities that follow.
The problem with freedom is the unknown that lies on the other side of it. That's what paralyzes us - not knowing what awaits us once we break the chains that hold us back from doing what we really want to do.
What gets us moving is conviction. For us to gain the freedom necessary to dictate the course of our lives, we have to absolutely believe in and follow through on the decisions we take to get us there. Ireland's freedom was spearheaded by a group of artists, poets, and intellectuals who ardently believed in freedom and were willing to pursue it against all odds. The revolutionaries of the Independence War were idealists - not fighters - who were severely outnumbered by British soldiers and initially disliked by the Irish majority until public executions by the British sparked support for their movement. During times of turbulence, conviction that their freedom was worth the struggle kept them moving forward.
The main obstacle standing in the way of achieving personal freedom - that is, the ability to conduct the trajectory of your life without self-imposed restrictions - is lacking conviction that we want it. When the conviction is there, anything is possible. We are free agents in the pursuit of our dreams, only restrained by the lack of faith in our own capabilities. We are meant to be free - but this freedom asks us to take responsibility for our actions and decisions.
Don't let security shadow freedom
Claiming freedom for ourselves can also mean facing opposition, overwhelming self-doubt and insecurity, and even being ostracized. When we do what we truly want to do, rather than what society tells us to do, we aren't "normal." We face resistance because we are taught to fear what we don't know.
Our very human need for security too often trumps our hunger for freedom. When I thought about how easy and lucrative it would be to keep living my comfortable life in New York City (case in point: I didn't leave when first given the chance), I would almost forget how deeply I craved something more. Craving for something that doesn't exist yet, however, is a different animal than dealing with the realities of a current situation.
There are countless inspirational quotes floating around the Internet wistfully talking about the value of freedom, but when it comes down to claiming it as our own, why do we recoil? We welcome freedom when it comes comfortably and doesn't deprive us of security. What happens when we are asked to work for it, make sacrifices, be uncomfortable and risk being outcast from the norm? We put our heads down, thrust our hands in our pockets and mumble something about how it's great but we'll get to it another time.
Gaining freedom can be an unbelievably uncomfortable process. Even when the benefits are obvious, few are willing to undergo it if it means sacrificing security.
Don't fight for freedom. Instead, persevere.
I used to think I was a fighter. Anytime I perceived a threat - a deviation from what I wanted to do, an encroachment on my set-in-stone principles - I would get ready to pounce. A fighter is always on the defense, ready to resist anything in his or her way. But once that fight is conquered, there is nothing to do but gloat and slump back into suspended anticipation for the next battle. I realized during my time in Ireland that I am not a fighter, nor do I want to be. Fighting asks us to contract, to squeeze ourselves into tight little balls of ideologies and beliefs to protect ourselves from invaders. Perseverance, on the other hand, asks for patience and expansion - both ingredients for growth.
Personal freedom is not a one-time fight. It's a slow and gradual progression that must be cared for, nurtured, and increasingly committed to over time. Most of us don't just wake up one day, say screw it, and march out into the world with all our freedom in hand.
Truthfully, we may not even fully comprehend what freedom means to us until we are deep in the process of pursuing it. How could we understand something that we just obtained or don't have yet? That's why it has consequences - if we knew exactly what we were getting ourselves into and what the results would be when we set out for it, then it wouldn't be so intimidating to pursue in the first place.
We don't have to fully understand freedom to want it, but we do have to be ready to face the consequences of pursuing it and have conviction in walking that path. Once we've taken the first (and in my opinion, most difficult) step towards freedom, we need to keep nurturing it by creating opportunity.
Ireland has done just that by leveraging its independence to lift itself out of poverty, becoming a hotspot in the booming tech industry and even rivaling its former colonizer, Britain, as a choice for HQ.
In my case, I wanted freedom from my old life. The first step was saving money. The next was brainstorming alternate ways to change my job. The next was packing up and moving out. And so on. Rome wasn't built in a day. The path to sustainable freedom is a slow and gradual one.
Freedom is not something you need to consistently fight for more of. Similar to income, there is a tipping point -- after you reach a certain point, having more money won't make you happier, and neither will having more freedom. It's what you do with what you have, and how you choose to use it to reinvent yourself that matters. When you remove your self-imposed restrictions and choose to direct the trajectory of your life, the world and its endless possibilities open up for you.
Freedom may carve the path, but in the end, it is your responsibility to walk it.