Faith, Freedom, and Fromm

By Nathan D. Croy

If someone wants to embrace freedom, they should prepare for anxiety too.

As Rati sat in my office, she wasn’t weeping or angry, she was frozen. “I don’t know if I want to get married to him or not. This wedding has been arranged since I was 12 and I had kind of accepted it. It happened to my other siblings, so I wasn’t ever surprised. Now that it’s here, I mean, he’s not a bad person! I just…I don’t know. People have asked me if I want to get married, if I hate the idea of an arranged marriage, all of that, but no one has asked me if I wanted to marry him. And now, I just don’t know.”

Rati (not her real name) moved from India to America for college. She came from a very wealthy and powerful family. They were conservative and maintained many cultural traditions, including arranged marriages. As her wedding day approached, her anxiety was growing. This man she was supposed to marry, she had only met him once, briefly, about 5 years ago. They had spoken online and by phone many times, but he remained a relative stranger to her.

Her time in America had introduced her to new concepts, customs, and cultures. None of her friends or roommates were expected to marry someone that had been chosen for them by their families. She was aware there were countries where arranged marriages were not the norm, but it was different when she experienced it first-hand. There seemed to be a very different set of expectations and outcomes in marriages, dating, and generally living life. Experiencing the reality of what she knew about vaguely had struck a chord with her. For Rati, the choice she was preparing to make extended far beyond the pending marriage. She was choosing between cultures, risking rejection from the family she was financially dependent on while finishing graduate school, and possibly being abandoned by some of the most important people she has ever known.

With the wedding date steadily marching towards her, Rati knew she would have to make a choice. It was clear that either choice would involve the risk of significant loss. That is why I asked her a different question,

“Rati, you’ve told me what other people have expected from you; your friends in college, a few men you’ve met, and your family. But there’s one thing I haven’t heard yet. What do you want?”

Many patients freeze at the question, “What do you want?” They frequently say they don’t know, they’re not sure, or they hope someone else will tell them. The bad news is that, of all the things therapy, religion, community, or relationships can give you, the one thing they cannot give someone is a want. It would be like asking someone to help me change my preference from raw broccoli to cooked broccoli! Others cannot alter my preferences. They can influence outcomes by controlling access to potential choices, they can encourage me to engage in certain activities, they can even threaten abandonment, rejection, or death for failure to comply. Ultimately, even if a person chooses to conform to the expectations of others, they may still be powerless to change their want. When this happens, when there’s incongruence between our values and our drive (or our want), we experience anxiety.

For Kierkegaard, anxiety served a similar purpose to the emotion of healthy guilt. In the same way that guilt motivates people to engage in relationship repair after they have done something to damage the relationship (either with themselves, others, or God), anxiety pushes people to seek out congruence between their want and their behaviors. This anxiety only exists if there is freedom to choose how a want is expressed. In The Concept of Anxiety, Kierkegaard defined anxiety as “the dizziness of freedom” because, without this freedom to choose, we won’t have to worry about acting congruently or not. We wouldn’t even have to mourn the loss of being able to express our sense of self, our want, in the world. Freedom and anxiety are inextricably intertwined. Humanity, because we have the burden of awareness of our existence, cannot have freedom without anxiety. In the same way guilt can serve a healthy purpose (relationship repair), anxiety can be just as healthy (repair of authenticity).

Reflecting on the expansion of authoritarianism in the late 1930’s, Fromm wrote Escape from Freedom (1941). He wanted to understand how Hitler could come to power with minimal resistance from the general population Having red Kierkegaard, Fromm built on those principles of anxiety and freedom. Fromm saw that when anxiety seemed to be overwhelming, to the extent we cannot process it, people seek ways to avoid their anxiety. Since freedom is necessary for anxiety to exist, the fastest way to resolve anxiety is by escaping our freedom. Fromm wrote there are three primary ways we give up freedom:

1. Through seeking an authority to take over and make decisions for us (Authoritarianism),

2. avoiding possibilities where we must make decisions, especially if those decisions could result in failure or rejection (Destructiveness),

3. or when an individual gives up their identity by mimicking the world around them to “fit in” so they will feel accepted (Automaton Conformity).

Each of these escape mechanisms is effective at avoiding anxiety, but there is a high price. By choosing to escape our freedom, we sacrifice our sense of self. With authoritarianism, we sacrifice our independence for relationship. The irony is that those who choose this means of relief are mutually submissive to each other. Fromm points out how the person “in charge” is dependent on others to submit to their will. He likens it to intimate partner violence.

This pattern would later be reflected in the “abuse cycle” developed in 1979 by Lenore E. Walker. For Fromm (and Walker), the evidence of this dependent submission is realized when the meek person in the relationship stands up to their bully. Suddenly, the bully becomes contrite, apologizes, and tells the formerly meek person how they’re needed, and wanted, and the bully can’t live without them! For a brief moment, the interdependence of these two people is revealed. Often, the timid person will relent, accept the bully back into their lives, and the cycle begins again.

The second form of avoidance is destructiveness. When the world feels too large, when there are too many demands, when there are too many opportunities to be hurt or taken advantage of, the easiest way is to avoid the opportunities. This can work for a while, but as we mature, the world offers more and more chances to grow. These possibilities for growth contain threats of failure, of ridicule, and (the seemingly) inevitable rejection. Instead of accepting the risks that come with growth, they “destroy” the possibilities. Keeping their world small is the only way to maintain control. The more people someone interacts with, the greater the chances of disappointing someone. Suicide, according to Fromm, is the last, desperate, attempt of destructiveness to save a small part of the self from the rest of the world.

Automaton conformity is the final, and most common, form of escape from freedom. Blending in with everyone else is an insidious loss of self. At the end of life, a person who has done everything “right,” but with no soul invested in their actions, may think to themselves, “Well what was the point of all that?!” It would be akin to spending all your money on what someone else wants for themselves. Then, when looking at all the acquired goods, there’s a sudden realization: “I didn’t want any of this! Why did I buy it?” In the same way, if someone were to get a receipt for everything we spent our time on, they may wonder, “Why did I spend my time on this? I don’t even like it!”

Unfortunately, this realization often comes too late. That is why automaton conformity is destructive. The world often rewards this form of escape. The rewards can be monetary, verbal, or material. When everything is quiet, sometimes the awareness of this emptiness creeps in and we begin to feel anxious. This sense of anxiety can be quelled with a nice dopamine hit from buying something newer, bigger, or better. Doesn’t so much matter what it is, as long as it feels good; as long as it keeps the anxiety at bay.

Without intentionality, the church can be turned into an implement of escape using any of these means. When the church is made an authority, it can be used to absolve us of freedom, if only they’ll tell us what to do (legalism). Destruction is possible through the creation of an us/them duality. Who’s in, who’s out? Are you a member or a visitor? This keeps our world small, but the relationships are clear and there is minimal risk of rejection as long as we “stay in our lane.”

Automaton conformity is, in my opinion, one of the greatest risks, because it can create what some have called “functional pharisees.” Christian schools accept many people from various walks of life. If one of these people acts outside of strict bounds and is caught, they are expelled and/or shamed until they leave. Those who have already learned how to hide their unsanctioned actions experience no punishments. These schools end up graduating people who comply with the rules and people who break the rules, yet they look identical.

The good news is that scripture, and Fromm, offer an alternative: Freedom. Defined as “spontaneous relationship to [humanity] and nature, a relationship that connects the individual with the world without eliminating his individuality” (Fromm, 1941, p. 29), freedom is the answer to the unhealthy avoidance of authentic living. Embracing freedom is not an easy task because of the accompanying anxiety. As it has been shown, living without true freedom leads to a half-life, a life without authenticity, a life of fear, avoidance, and half measures.

Freedom creates anxiety. When anxiety encourages people to create congruence in their life, it’s healthy. There’s also unhealthy anxiety. Unhealthy anxiety occurs when fear (the experience of a threat) is projected into the future. Fear triggers a reaction in the mind and body as if the threat had an object, a source, something we could run away from or kill. This is known as the fight, flight, freeze, faun response. If the threat exists in the future, if it’s anticipatory, then all those same survival responses are triggered, but there’s no object for us to address. All this motivating energy just sits inside of us with nowhere to go. As a friend from Texas said, “When you’re looking for a place to hang your hat, any nail will do.” In other words, if someone has all this energy inside of them, it’s going to go somewhere. Turning it inwards is self-destructive and if we take it out on someone else (who isn’t the threat), it’s a meaningless displacement. The alternative to fear and unhealthy anxiety is a simple, but not easy, thing: Faith.

Faith is placing complete trust in someone or something. Trust doesn’t work like a light switch. It’s more like a dimmer and there are dozens of them. It makes sense to trust your mechanic to work on your car, but not trust them to repair your roof. Sure, some skills may be transferable, but that’s not what a mechanic specializes in. There can be a high amount of trust in some places, a low amount of trust in others, and it would be healthy. When all the dimmer switches are turned to 100%, that’s faith.

Fear and faith are opposites. Christians are encouraged to put their trust in God when they are afraid (Psalm 56:3, Isaiah 41:10, I John 4:18, John 14:1, Luke 8:50, Hebrews 13:6). Christians can also, to a lesser degree, trust their world to be somewhat predictable. Therapists view safety as the freedom from threat caused by the environment. When someone feels as if they do not have the freedom to create a safe environment, or the freedom from an unsafe environment, it would make sense their trust, and faith, would be low.

Experientially, this makes sense. If I’m surrounded by lions (that I don’t trust), I’m going to feel threatened (fearful). If I trust myself to get out of the situation, or trust God to shut the mouths of the lions, I will be less fearful because I am less threatened. Learning to trust ourselves, to create and maintain trusting relationships, and learning to trust that God is with us in our lives, our experiences, our pain, and our joy.

Nathan D. Croy is a clinically licensed marriage and family therapist and a licensed clinical addictions counselor in Overland Park, KS. In 2017, he founded Existential Family Therapy and created a group practice. He lives in Kansas City with his wife, Catie, and two daughters, Evaline and Amelia.

To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Love Does Not Control: Therapists, Psychologists, and Counselors Explore Uncontrolling Love