Life, liberty and happiness are three fundamental rights borne out of the creation of this country. The meanings of liberty to a society over almost three hundred years fluctuate wildly. Initially as an escape for the oppressed and the pioneers, America stamped its reputation as the land of the free. In later years, immigration and the lure of the American dream bespoke the reality that all classes could aspire to success and wealth. The hypocrisy of a long history of slavery and oppression of women finally amounted to the civil rights and feminist movements and culminated recently in a hotly contested primary between an African American man and a woman. In one sense, freedom clearly still reigns.
But to the individual, the fundamental American right is much less clear. Class distinction, based largely on socioeconomic and racial differences, is growing. The disparity between the rich and the poor has widened exponentially. Educational opportunities for the lower classes have all but disappeared. Perhaps for the first time, this country is divided into the haves and the have-nots. We all may be grateful for the individual freedom to speak our minds and for our human rights, neither to be taken for granted, but too many people are trapped, their freedom not even an afterthought. Either the fortunate buckle under the pressure to be in the haves or the less fortunate wallow in the despair of never having. One pressure is usually applied by knowing, desperate parents hoping to push their children towards success, the second by hopeless, desperate parents who know of no escape. The freedom of the individual, one pillar of American life, is more a relic of the past.
Children can sense the futility of a predetermined life. Even the wealthy, a class known to produce children with eating disorders, suffer this fate. A child with means, who knows she will always get what she wants, has nothing to drive her, nothing to prove. The unusual child with preternatural internal motivation might find her way, but the bulk of these children of means live the lives set by their parents and find identity through other means, a scenario that can easily produce an eating disorder. The message is clear. Your life is set by your place in birth and the freedom to move within society largely relegated to distant memory.
There is a glimmer of hope: the philanthropy aimed at improving a broken education system; the technology opening new avenues in staid industries; the growing backlash against the food industry; and a president who represents hope and change. These all foreshadow a piece of society interested in bringing freedom back in future generations but with little sense of how to do so.
What is so often overlooked is that personal freedom doesn't exist in a vacuum. American idealism grew out of a loosely structured but firm Constitution open to interpretation but upheld as the truth. Different legal schools of thought vary widely, some may be controversial, but all point to this document as the American bible. It is a miracle that an entire nation can accept a political compromise as a guide to good living almost 250 years later. And that bible makes clear that freedom is a high priority.
But freedom in and of itself is not what works; freedom within a clear-cut structure is the lesson to be learned. The American dream grew not only in a land of endless opportunity but in a land of endless rules. Granted, those rules largely proclaimed individual freedoms, but a national proclamation of freedom is much more than good intentions. Instead, the message reads like good parenting advice: follow the basic rules, then you can do whatever you like.
Backed by American history, this philosophy works. The freedom of the individual, the wild successes of the high-minded entrepreneur, the social-minded activist and the idealistic politician have in turn molded the innovation, individuality and liberty grounding this country. As the rules break down so goes individual freedom. Class and money now open unlimited opportunity while the growing masses see no way out except the mind-numbing path of materialism and commercialism. The nascent but obdurate class system may just cut off individual freedom at its knees. The new generation is getting the hint. Good grades, extracurricular passions and an entree into elite education don't replace the wide open American life. Individual liberty trumps the class system, even if you're on top. The young deeply feel a sense that they are missing something. The momentary high of an eating disordered identity is like a new generation getting stoned together. It's an adolescent solution to an insoluble problem. But on an individual level, letting freedom ring can open the door back to opportunity. With generations of experience with individual liberty, the land of the free, it isn't like this society needs to remake the world. Going back to basics will suffice, and hopefully make it easier for everyone to eat again.
Just the other day, I was asking a colleague a question about my child, just to surmise what the future might bring. She sensed my trepidation, even anxiety, and quickly interpreted it in her own way: what might happen to my child? Could this snowball into a life of failure? But her way of assuaging my fear was all too telling. She said, "I have known children like your daughter who have gone to Brown, some even to Princeton and Harvard." And then life is set, all worries forgotten? The path is clear? Life's satisfaction as simple as an Ivy league degree? All I could think was that we have surely lost our way. There is nothing sacred to grasp onto when the future is unclear. That philosophy will be the ruin of this country. Contrary to current popular belief, peace of mind comes in a moment when all is not lost, when opportunity lies ahead and when, above all, freedom to aspire, to dream and to live fully remains within our grasp.
The next post will switch to a new topic: the role of social contagion in the spread eating disorders and disordered eating.