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Column: How did we surrender our liberty and become voluntary slaves?

We sold our freedom long ago when we accepted mountainous debt in search of power and status, writes Steve Bonham. The lesson? Avoid committing to things that make us dependent upon the whims of others.

AS THE SMOKE clears, the cannons quieten and we gaze across a landscape pot-holed by economic troubles, many of us must wonder – if this is the result, then what was all of it for? All the ambition, the risk-taking, the madness?

And as we test out the extent of these newly-forged shackles of mortgage and debt, amongst the blame and the recrimination we might also wonder: “How did I get myself into this mess?” How did we, as the historian Theodore Zeldin might put it, become ‘voluntary slaves’, surrendering our liberty for the main chance?

Encircling ourselves with debt

According to Zeldin, there is a long established tradition of choosing slavery as a means of getting on. It was a feature of many great civilisations – the Ottoman Empire was practically run by an army of voluntary slaves many of whom became very powerful and are, he wryly notes, the ancestors of today’s modern executives. Voluntary slavery differs from traditional slavery in that we make the choice to become enslaved. We might have discovered the extent of our slavery only recently but we sold our freedom long ago when things seemed so positive and exciting; encircling ourselves with debt and deference in search of power and status.

Yet it’s not as if we have an overwhelming predisposition to seek slavery. There is a potent drive in the opposite disposition in virtually all of us; a streak of adventurousness and rebellious restlessness. A ‘fulfilment gap’ exists between our on-going daily experience and a sense of an alternative, next-to-world running alongside us, whispering of the potential for something more exciting.

Most of us get caught in an evolutionary dilemma in that we are not one thing or another; we are one thing and another.  We contain what someone once called ‘interdependent opposites’. This is our evolutionary heritage that has made us the most adaptable of the Great Apes. On the one hand we are driven to respond to the ‘fulfilment gap’; this haunting sense of possibility, potential and difference. It is this that makes us curious for the sea, the mountain and open road. And on the other hand we are called to settle down and belong to a community for we are, as evolutionary psychologists point out, ‘tribal’ in nature. We are hard wired to collaborate, to fit in with others, to belong.

Embracing the status quo

Might this be a particular ‘human thing’, something that distinguishes us from other animals, this need to embrace the status quo and to reject it? It is the source of that which allows us to change and adapt whilst maintaining ourselves in coherent social groups.  But opposites seem to mean you have to choose one and give up on the pleasures and rewards of the other.

The boom years seemed to offer a solution – by joining in with status quo and following others, doing what the neighbours were doing, we could have our paradoxical cake and eat it. The wealth those years seemed to promise would enable us to be more adventurous, to change, to gain new experiences.

But more than this, in themselves, they were exciting. There was the taste of competition and the thrill of defying expectations. We even managed to make banking and building sexy! So if that meant we surrendered a bit more of our freedom, became voluntary slaves, wore the corporate suit, took on the mega-mortgage, so be it. Was it our need for adventure and change that paradoxically bound us in chains?

As Carl Jung once said “The greatest and most important problems of life are fundamentally insoluble, they can never be solved only outgrown.” And being a voluntary slave with its emphasis on fitting in and meeting expectations could never deliver us freedom and make us fulfilled. You can’t manage a paradox by focusing only on one aspect of it and, if you try, perhaps you inevitably get the worst of it.

Where to now?

So where do we go from here? The implicit challenge is to embrace our inconsistency and perhaps our foolishness and move on. It is not for most of us to give up seeking achievement and change and other such worldly things.

But perhaps the experience of the last few years can teach us to be mindful of the trade-offs that we make; to avoid signing up to things that on consideration make us feel less strong and more dependent upon the whim of others. To make sure the companions we keep encourage and enrich us rather than leave us feeling obliged and restricted, and to fully embrace the rich of the world we already have.

Steve Bonham is one of the Europe’s foremost practicing performance psychologists, and the leading UK proponent of Reversal Theory – the most radical theory of human motivation in the last 20 years.  As a consultant and speaker, he is in demand worldwide, and has helped numerous individuals and organisations fulfil their potential including HSBC, SABMiller, Oracle, the Economist Group, the Boots Company, and Weetabix. Steve Bonham is also an author. His new book is called: A Little Nostalgia For Freedom: Living Life to the Full.

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Steve Bonham

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