Notes on freedom for a 6 year old boy

My new years resolution, perhaps the new years resolution, is to get a job. That pays money. As of mid January this hasn’t occurred, so moving quickly onto other options it would also be resolute to contribute to Coburghagen once again.

My posts fell away, as many a progressive cause or much loved celebrity in 2016, but in my case due to a falling out of love with writing. The fall can be directly attributed to committing the most productive hours of the day writing cover letters and responding to key selection criteria. In time the lack of reward for effort begins to wear you down, and before you know it you have stopped writing altogether.

Slapping that kind of negativity in the face is step 1, along with being prescribed thyroxine by my Endocrinologist, before sticking my head up and observing the wonders that have been occurring right in front of my eyes. To wit, my 6 year old known as ‘Breaker’, not as a nod of respect to Mr Morant and his horse skills, but to his propensity to bugger up anything his incredibly strong fingers can get a hold of. Prophetically though, this story is about his ability to break in the saddle of a 20 inch Avanti Shadow, or in layman terms, learn to ride a bike.

For a child in 2016, there are limited opportunities for a meaningful rite of passage. My definition would broadly encapsulate experiences that engender self-belief and worth, and provide a child with a greater perspective of their world. In observing Breaker and his older brother ‘Moaner’ (another literal explanation) the only comparable experience has been watching them learn to swim. In this case young Breaker was slowly convinced by his enlightened and insightful parents that what he really wanted for his birthday was a bike. Forget the iPad and nerf gun, the bike was the biz. Heeding this advice, the first stage in encouraging his love affair was to let him pick the bike he wanted. Having done the basic research and visited the local stores Breaker fell in love with the most expensive option (we’ve all been there). Figuring it was money well spent if he was encouraged to ride, we handed over the credit card, or as explained by Breaker at the till “you’ve got to risk it for the biscuit”, and rode off into the sunset (our local park, with a decent gravel path winding its way in and around the trees and play equipment).

As a parent we all do the “just listen to me” routine. We tell our children exactly what they need to do and they choose to do something else. Day 1 of learning to ride involved me giving intense levels of instruction and feedback before Breaker requested in a pleading voice that I stop shouting at him. Taking that on board, I shut up and just pushed when pushing was requested. This was frequently. The target on day 1 was to complete one lap of the park without stopping, falling or colliding. It was a wobbly, anxiety inducing lap but it was achieved. As a parent I saw Breaker with fresh eyes. So long in the shadow of his older brother, he was far more determined than I had given him credit for. He was simply not going home until a confirmed lap was under the belt. Secondly, he got great personal satisfaction out of his accomplishment, walking at least a foot taller on the way home.

Day 2 was considered by me as an opportunity to consolidate on lap 1, and maybe work on the art of starting and stopping. The end of day 2 saw thirty consecutive laps without a break and a look of pure joy beaming on the face of Breaker. And thats it, 2 days to to learn to ride a bike. Mind boggling. Mind boggling because Breaker immediately saw the potential. A child of small to medium motivation when it came to a suggested walk to the shops was now actively canvassing expeditions to pick up a litre of milk, or the daily ride to school. Looking through his eyes I could revisit what we all appreciate about riding a bike but tend to forget. It’s efficient, it’s fun, it puts you on a level playing field with your big brother, it is the freedom to go wherever you want to go under your own steam, to push beyond your known horizons. And so on the streets of Coburg in 2016, a 6 year old boy discovers the concept of freedom.

The uncomfortable reality is that less and less children are receiving access to an opportunity like this in our car heavy suburbs. Parents are likely too busy or worried to allow their children to ride to school or cruise the streets on the weekend or a warm summer evening. If you can’t experientially encounter a core concept such as freedom in your developing years, how do you grow up to value, advocate and protect it when the world is going pear shaped? In years such as 2016, which throw up more questions than they answer, expanding access to these concepts and experiences for future generations becomes increasingly vital.

Reclaiming Epicurus: Could an ancient philosophy of happiness save the world?

My Mum passed on a book she thought I’d be interested in the last time we caught up, which is a pretty simple act in the context of a modern and technologically sophisticated world, but remains a powerful method for sharing ideas and challenging the status quo.

Image courtesy of Penguin Australia
Image courtesy of Penguin Australia

In this case the book was an essay by Luke Slattery – ‘Reclaiming Epicurus: Could an ancient philosophy of happiness save the world?’, published by Penguin Specials in 2012. To place him historically, Epicurus was a Greek philosopher who predated Christ by three centuries, and it was fascinating to read that centuries later the movement remained robust, active and relevant. So much so that it was in direct competition with the evolving Christian religion for the spiritual hearts and minds of the local populace, perhaps even had the better of, before it was overtaken and largely forgotten. One of those sliding door moments that could, perhaps, have led to a radically different world to the one we inhabit today.

The essence of Slattery’s writing is that Epicurus’ teachings suggested happiness can only be achieved through a simplification of our lives, to want less, to need less, to find joy and fulfilment through friendship, simple pleasures and living in the present. He also, radically, rejected the Gods, the concept of fate or an after life, extolling to his followers the capacity they had for personal agency within their own lives and communities, and that nothing mattered but the here and now – no paradise came after.

Slattery takes these ideas and transposes them onto the biggest challenge we face today, unsustainable development. Relentless, exponentially increasing consumption is at the heart of our global economic system, constant growth as a necessary force for attaining prosperity, for social justice and equity. The question is, can we decouple human development, fulfilment and happiness from this desire for more stuff? Because if we can’t, our future appears to be very bleak, both for the civilisation we have created and our species as a whole.

What fascinates me about this book is the timeless quality of human frailty. Almost 2,500 years ago the people of ancient Greece were worried about the impact on our wellbeing of a propensity for greed, of striving for power, of desire for wealth and material goods. These concerns are not unique to our time, to our own manifestation of neoliberalism, consumerism, globalisation, industrialisation and free markets. We aren’t special in that regard, as Epicurus’ concern is both deeply spiritual and enduring – how do we achieve human happiness? What is unique about our modern world is that greed and desire on a global industrial scale has the capacity to significantly alter or destroy the eco-system services we rely upon to supply our life giving needs – air, food and water.

The key question for me is how do we create the required transformation of our socio-economic system? How do we shift billions of people away from a life based upon material aspirations? My sense is that this is not about a search for answers. Epicurus, amongst other philosophical traditions, has provided a sound basis for living our lives sustainably. Similarly, climate change as an issue could be largely resolved with the technology and knowledge we already have available, it is only the political will that is fundamentally lacking. We have to want to change, we have to be motivated to change, we have to be given a positive vision of what change will mean and look like. Perhaps most of all, we need to know that we are not on this journey alone, that we are part of a broad community movement. I’m not a practitioner of any organised religion, but I recognise the urgent need to emotionally engage and unite society with the biggest challenge it has ever faced, and the potential of religion to teach us how to bring people together for a common moral/ethical cause. It’s a funky collaboration, science and religion, but if the process isn’t collaborative and inclusive what chance do we stand?