The Delicate Balance Between Freedom and Disengagement (with Hope for a Better Future)

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As a child, I used to look forward to adulthood with an intense eagerness, a time when I could be in total charge of myself and my life. The limitations that I had to navigate then, ranging from my parents’ unmistakable expectations to the scholastic demands made by various teachers, left little room, I felt, for the full and rich development of my own ideas. Even though most every kid must exist within a similar framework, I felt these restrictions were intolerable and quietly rebelled through a belligerent withdrawal into my imagination. Through these fantasies about complete independence, I glorified the freedom that I believed would happen after finally extracting myself from other people’s rules.

That self-reliance, a goal seamlessly merged into all of my reflections, came to vivid life within the opening and closing credits of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. It’s amusing now to describe how this television sitcom influenced my vision of self-sufficiency, but it made a powerful impact on me at the time. Images of Moore interacting with the world on what I interpreted to be her terms alone resonated in my mind with such authority that I truly believed those brief clips epitomized the freedom that adulthood offered. Whether elegantly posed in an elevator, surrounded by nature at some urban park, or featured along a warmly lit residential street, Moore, to me, epitomized a woman who determined her own destiny.

During this period, where I largely lived within the realm of my uninformed, quite unaware thoughts, I based liberty on such romanticized and overly simplified depictions. It never occurred to me that the structure I endured amid silent objections in childhood represented an unspoken care, a concern for my well-being within an often indiffierent world.

Once I ultimately achieved that very freedom I’d always craved, I gradually realized the distortions inherent in my initial views on this subject. Beyond meeting the logical requirements of any particular type of employment, I did obtain more flexibility than childhood offered.

This is so very true.

But the actual accomplishment came with a massive price. That cost involved an invisibility I never anticipated.

The disorienting lack of distinction, a sense of utterly faceless anonymity, reverberates at the center of my upcoming novel Detached. Wanda Lindstrom, one of three women who copes with the sudden and shocking murder of a neighbor in their townhome community, suffers from the devastating reality that her existence really doesn’t matter. She watches the rude antics of her next-door neighbor Charlotte Murray from her bedroom window, maddened about having to withstand such endless noise. Neither the police nor the homeowners association will take steps to eliminate the constant tumult, which Wanda also believes contains criminal elements. So the toxic pollution continues.

Wanda feels herself slowly transforming into a pair of floating eyes, an embittered consciousness disengaged from her body, seeing and experiencing the world around her, but without the benefit of a grounding force. While her husband works during the day, she’s at home with their two cats, halfheartedly trying to complete freelance writing projects, yet constantly fixated on her inability to shape a productive and secure environment for herself.

When she tries to explain these flowing, threatening, pervading suspicions to her husband, Wanda feels a terrible chasm form between them as a result, one difficult to overcome. The effort, though fervently sincere, just serves to accelerate her own disconnectedness. Only the cats, who watch her from their established perch on the unmade bed, seem to possess any understanding of her emotional struggle.

This is the aspect of adulthood that I never could’ve pictured for myself, where the outside world’s entrenched lack of interest in an individual’s quality of life can easily become the norm.

Though everyone’s outlook on adulthood is obviously different, the pathway from seeking independence, forging a meaningful existence, to feeling disengaged by the world’s impersonal design contains certain consistencies that transcend experience, it seems to me. I see this very powerlessness when I read about current events and scroll through dozens of comments on social media. It’s clear to me as I listen to pundits and their guests discuss the politics and policies that affect all of our lives, where an undercurrent of helpless awe, despite certain threads of anger, frequently weaves into the discourse.

As rights are removed, as dangers become more prevalent, as corporate profits consume and then override societal welfare, an individual’s agency slips further and further into oblivion. It’s no wonder that numbness creeps forward and looms over us in response.

The benefit of describing this context through my own personal evolution makes me recognize that I want more. I wish for more from my life than an acceptance of this disengagement due to the world’s open, unapologetic dismissiveness. Freedom to grow and to become the best me possible will never disappear, despite the fatigue and never-ending stress that I feel toward the broader universe. Yet I can still strive for the connected care and concern that I once experienced, though without an appropriate amount of appreciation, as a child.

To be honest, though, I don’t know how such a potential, and quite significant, reconstruction of society might occur. But that’s why I write.

I’ll always be hopeful as I imagine the possibilities for a better world, where a healthy balance of freedom and mutual concern can somehow, in some way, define our society for the future.

Alisa Burris

Alisa Burris is a literary fiction author whose work depicts alienated lives with glimpses of mystery blended into the narrative layers. Her novel Detached explores how three vastly different women cope with the trauma of a violent murder in their townhome community as they face private secrets of their own. In addition to writing stories that reflect today’s complex world, Alisa holds a PhD in English. Her dissertation specifically examines the fiction of Jewish-American women authors in the context of the cultural estrangement that they personally experienced during the twentieth century.

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