How autonomous are you as a person?

We all want to feel free. Free to do what we want. Determine our own lives. So that we can have a meaningful life. A successful life. But does that automatically mean that we should be completely free? That we should be able to decide everything ourselves? Only have to think about ourselves? Or can connection with other people also provide freedom? And can we still live autonomously?

What is autonomy?

Autonomy is independence (from the Greek autos = self and nomos = law, or ‘governed by one’s own laws’). This is about individual self-determination: the ability to decide for yourself how you want to live your life. When we think of autonomy, we often think of someone who decides everything alone, is guided by what he or she wants (although when we think of autonomy we do not immediately think of an autonomous woman). Autonomy means being able to do everything you want independently of everything and everyone. Unhindered by rules, obligations or relationships. If you understand autonomy in this way, a rich life is a solitary life, completely in line with the thoughts of Plato, where you focus on control and control, and reason prevails over emotion (while both are learned social constructions).

When are you autonomous?

But if that is our definition of autonomy, then it also means that we would no longer be autonomous at the slightest thing. If we ask for advice, do we still make our own decision? And if we want to take into account that our partner supports our career choice and work environment? Are we still really autonomous? And what if we want to share our lives with loved ones and friends or more broadly the community? Do we still live autonomously?

According to philosopher Beate Rössler, one thing does not exclude the other. The idea that we are only autonomous when we are completely independent is incorrect. She calls this an outdated and one-sided view of autonomy. You could say it’s a macho attitude. There are two problems with this rigid definition of autonomy, according to Beate Rössler.

  1. If you interpret autonomy so strictly, autonomy is almost always unattainable. And therefore it remains an abstract concept, an ideal or utopia. It is virtually impossible to completely separate or feel completely detached from everyone. And that can quickly make you feel trapped, because you are not (completely) autonomous. Then you feel limited by your partner, your friends, your family, your boss, your job, the country in which you were born or live, the culture around you, and so on. Everything and everyone is a limitation of your free self and so you are never autonomous?
  2. If you want to implement autonomy in a practical way, you will soon notice that the ‘old’ way does not work. There is always something or someone that ensures that things go differently than you had planned or wanted. If you deal with this pragmatically, you might think that autonomy is not important, but it is.

Autonomous living according to the ‘old’ definition is actually not possible. While you give substance to your autonomy by living, says Beate Rössler.

The difference between being autonomous and living autonomously

Autonomy then seems to be only about the form, the form in which you live your life: as alone and independent as possible. It’s about control. It is a rational form of autonomy. While a fulfilled life is about the content, about surrendering to a (higher) goal. What does your life entail? You cannot be autonomous and still live an autonomous life. You can choose to care for your disabled husband and be perfectly happy knowing that you are making a sacrifice in terms of your autonomy to do so. But as long as you make this choice freely, you are autonomous. And your life can still be successful. An individual autonomous choice for a life in which you consciously choose to stand on the sidelines can be a fulfilled life, full of meaning for everyone involved. Without being autonomous, you can still organize your life autonomously.

Living autonomously also means living together

We must learn to think relationally when it comes to autonomy, says Beate Rössler. And so to a different definition of autonomy. Being free is not about doing everything on your own. Everything always happens in relation to others. But that does not mean that this realization makes us less autonomous. We can be autonomous in connectedness. Philosopher Jan Drost also argues this in his book ‘When love is over’. He states that we humans are social, relational beings. We need each other not only to stay alive, but also to know who we are. Without the other there is no I. We define who we are in relation to others. We need the other for every aspect of our own identity. Very much needed. In the old-fashioned view of autonomy, it coincides with invulnerability. If we don’t need anyone, no one can disappoint, hurt or leave us. But we are not invulnerable. We are who we are because of the other, sometimes despite the other, but always in relation to the other. Others are the mirrors in which we see ourselves and through which we experience ourselves, says Jan Drost (2017). How do we find our autonomy in this? By (learning to) deal with others and circumstances.

Control is an illusion

We may think that we cannot be ourselves when considering others, or that we need to ignore rules in order to realize ourselves. Or all circumstances should determine so that life goes exactly as we would like. But unfortunately, in practice it appears that we do not have control over everything and never can. We may want to live according to the principle ‘bad luck must go away’, but how realistic is that? So what? Because if it’s not that something unexpected happens, it’s that we don’t know exactly what to do. Sometimes we doubt, we hesitate, we don’t know what we want or need. We all do that and it is not a sign of weakness of will, but is part of being human. Will you stay in your relationship or will you look for someone else? Will you keep your job or go in a different direction? Will you work fewer hours because your children need you, or will you give priority to your career? Are you moving to a larger house, with higher monthly costs, but less travel time to your family? On what basis do you make your choices?

Choosing is sharing

If you can do everything in freedom, if you can always choose everything, the world is infinitely vast, but also infinitely empty. If everything is possible, what do you choose? And when do you know that you have chosen the right? We develop as people, change as people, and yet we can still keep the wheel firmly in our hands. But we cannot be our own compass. These are the others, whether it concerns the effect we (want) to have on others, or that others have on us or the relationship we (want to) have with others. The other always plays a role.

A fulfilled life is about conscious choices you make for yourself, taking others and the world into account, so that you can give direction to your life. Then autonomy is about self-determination of the content of your life and not the way in which you make this decision. Consciously choosing is an autonomous choice and that is not automatically an easy choice. Sometimes it is the connection with others that gives freedom. Then the relationship with others helps you choose. Such as when a trainer quits due to family circumstances and would rather be with his sick wife than work for a football club. That gives direction. Or when you decide to accept that interesting job abroad, because your husband is up for a foreign adventure with you and supports you 100%. Then the choice is quickly made. Viewed in this way, being able to choose freely is a condition for a fulfilled life, in the knowledge that every choice you make is also a choice to abandon what you might otherwise have done.

Autonomy: between feeling and reason

An autonomous life according to the ‘old’ definition is a rational life. A life of pluses and minuses that you can add up objectively, giving you a good measure of the extent to which a life can be considered successful, even from the outside. But is that the same as choosing a fulfilled life? Can that be measured? Autonomy is then focused on management and control.

By allowing autonomy to shape our lives in a relational way, we make our lives and ourselves autonomous. Every day again. We can and learn to trust the changeable, try to surrender to what comes our way, to go along with the other, instead of setting our goals on mastery and control. Our main task is to remain ourselves, even though our self is not a constant, unchanging self. By continually considering whether it is something I support. And always attach the perspective of hope to that. For ourselves and for each other.

Feeling and reason are not water and fire. They are like water and sunlight: they need each other. It’s about balance.

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