If you have ever been to a sawmill like the one I used to run, you have seen one of the most fearsome objects you are ever likely to meet: a sawblade at least three feet in diameter with teeth as big as a tiger’s whirring loudly just a couple feet from the operator. There were no safety guards on my sawmill. I’m not sure how there could be. I frequently had to reach close to the blade to remove boards and some debris.
One day while I was working, the thought entered my brain that I could just dive onto that sawblade and have it cut me in half. This thought frightened me so much I shut everything down, went home, put the covers over my head, and talked to no one. What was going on with me? I wasn’t suicidal. Until this happened, I was happy with my life. Was I going crazy?
I have since learned that this kind of thought is very common. I have had something like it since, standing on the brink of a great height from which I could jump or driving in a car which I could crash into a tree. A hundred clients have told me similar stories – seriously, at least a hundred – and every one of them was as rattled as I had been. We call this phenomenon an intrusive thought, meaning it’s a thought that arrives uninvited. It’s often mistaken for a suicidal thought or, if it involves aggression towards others, homicidal tendencies. If it involves leaving your family and running off to Montana, it’s mistaken for unhappiness with your marriage. An intrusive thought is generally none of those things, nor does it mean you’re going crazy; at least, it doesn’t have to.
But what does it mean? Why are you thinking of doing these things if you don’t want to do them?
I can’t say for certain why you’re thinking these things, if you do; but I can give you an explanation that made sense for me.
Having these thoughts is what it feels like to be free.
After spending the better part of that day in bed, pondering; I was able to safely return to work once I came up with this idea with the assistance of some existential philosophers. It’s like this. If I was going to dive into the saw and have it cut me in half, nothing and no one could have stopped me. That’s freedom.
You might have thought freedom was something different. You might have thought freedom was something like leaving your family and running off to Montana. Well, you can run off to Montana if that’s what you really want; but you are already free. By that I mean you can already do that and nothing or no one can stop you. There may be consequences if you do. Running off to Montana isn’t free that way and neither is diving into a head saw or jumping into the Grand Canyon or smashing your car into a tree because you can. All these things have consequences. Everything has consequences. Not doing those things has consequences. There are always consequences. I’m talking about freedom of choice.
But, you say, you’d rather be free of those bad thoughts. You’d rather not know you have the choice to steer your car into the next truck that comes the other way. Fine; if you really want to be free of freedom, then you can slam into the truck. Your choice. There’s nothing no one can do to stop you. Once you’re dead, that’s it, though; there’s nothing more you can chose. You will have made your last choice.
The same thing goes about running off to Montana. If you’re just going fly fishing for a couple weeks, that’s one thing; but if you disappear from your family, leaving no note, that’s an egg that’s hard to unscramble. The fly fishing plan seems to preserve all your options. You can go to Montana, and you can also return home.
Sometimes true freedom is not where you think it is. This reminds me of traffic lights. How do you feel about traffic lights? Are you for them or against them? Do traffic lights take away your freedom or do they enable it?
I hate being stuck at a light; but I believe a well-placed and well-regulated traffic light enables more freedom than not having a traffic light. It gives people on side streets a chance to safely enter a busy road. If you’re on a busy road, you won’t have people cutting you off. It prevents accidents and all the complications that then arise. A limitation of some freedom in one area gives you more freedom in another.
Of course, many traffic lights are neither well-placed nor well regulated. That kind is pure evil; but I have a choice whether I obey them or not. I can’t just blame the traffic light if I’m stuck at it. I can run the light and take my chances, if I don’t mind risking my freedom.