Walking the experience of freedom

2021-10-17, 10:29pm Literature



Sudhirendar Sharma

It is the quest for freedom that is at the core of human existence. 

Freedom is mankind’s most cherished dream, but remains hard to achieve as society has outsourced virtually all the tasks needed for survival.  With interdependence being the leitmotif of human existence, both good and bad people could maintain their freedom by simply staying out of reach of those who deprived them of it. Not content with this simplistic linearity, Sebastian Junger undertook a long walk with three friends along the rail lines in south-central Pennsylvania to have a firsthand experience with freedom. ‘We were the only people in the world who knew where we were’, which helped them experience personal autonomy and mutual interdependence to ponder a very big idea called Freedom. 

Best known for the bestseller The Perfect Storm, which was turned into a blockbuster movie, Junger weaves the magic of literary prose that holds explosive calm as he unravels multiple perspectives on the primary human desire that defines us. Taking reader through long detours in history and anthropology, the author questions why those who protect themselves against others are the ones who are organized enough to oppress freedom of their own people? Why is it that democracy, designed to strike a balance, is unable to uphold and guarantee freedom? As democracies are under growing threat, one wonders if history is seeking sacrifices from those who value it to something almost sacred.   

Loaded with musings on freedom, the book is a short narrative with much to be read between the lines and with clear reflections on the disreputable political environment we are part of. Although the storyline is somewhat incoherent, it has pellets of enduring truth which are thoughtful and engaging. Junger considers the lessons of the Spanish War, which his father fled from, akin for our own time with lies out to destroy democracies - the custodian of freedom. As was in Spain, once lies get accepted as truth, everything including life, death, and reality are up for grabs. The takeover of democracies seems to be a work in progress ever since.

Illuminating and thought-provoking, Freedom is an engaging exercise in meditative self-indulgence. Its contemporary relevance draws serious attention to the need for preserving freedom by protecting democracy from fascist takeover. Junger’s concerns on upholding the right to freedom are indeed real as fascist forces are gunning for power in the guise of being democratic in intent, but not on purpose. In the post-truth era, knowledge is being compromised for faith, loyalty for obedience, and power for freedom. Unknowingly, people have bargained their freedom for illusive safety and security. “Freedom and safety seemed to exist on a continuum where the more you had of one, the less you had of the other.”

It is indeed fascinating how a long walk along the rail lines, the veritable no man’s land between civilization and nature, could propel ideas on freedom in the wilderness of forced isolation. Sleeping under bridges and in the abandoned building and in the woods and on golf courses, the author found that ‘there are many definitions of freedom but surely that is one of them’. Securing temporary freedom to wrestle with oneself is close to being a Hemingway in the making. It is a style of writing that guides one to understand human fight against fellow humans for freedom and survival; be it between the natives and the usurpers, the Irish against the British, or the Taliban against the US. It is the quest for freedom that is at the core of human existence. 

Freedom ought not to be read with any preconceptions as the author himself admits that the trip was an escape from lived reality, a temporary injunction against whatever was coming. Back home after four hundred miles of walking, it was time for him to face life again. Perhaps, it is the acceptance of the random nature of our existence that truly sets us free.


by Sebastian Junger

4th Estate, UK 

Extent: 147, Price: Rs. 499.

(Dr. Sudhirendar Sharma is a writer specializing in development issues. He is based in New Delhi, India)

First published in The Hindu, issue dated Oct 17, 2021.