Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose

My father was a pretty big fan of the late US American country singer Janis Joplin. I could pray for a Mercedes-Benz to the Lord probably before I could move on my own two feet. And that early childhood music education really did a good job. To this day I like listening to that smokey voice. “Me and Bobby McGee” is on my favourite songs Spotify playlist since the day I started filling that list.

The chorus of that song, however, has one line that for a long time I could not really understand: “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose”. Because isn’t freedom the thing we strive for? Aren’t we doing so much in the name of freedom? Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to live a life as you want it and design it?

I always took that phrase in a very dark interpretation: You can only ever be truly free if you have nothing left to fight for. You can only ever be truly free if you have nothing left to care for, if you gave up caring for something. The song, after all, is about a woman (in Joplin’s interpretation) and her partner hitchhiking through the states. Is there a bigger fantasy of just leaving everything behind, living into the day and seeing where you end up than hitchhiking?

The word freedom recently strikes a wrong chord with me. I still believe in the values of freedom. But I am not sure of the intentions of others who (mis)use the word. Recently I noticed the tendency to use “your freedom” as the reason to be a douchebag. You just deeply insulted and hurt somebody with your words? “But the freedom of speech!” A legislator decides to take a step back in history and criminalize abortions? “But the freedom of a right to live!” You don’t wear a mask and risk others getting ill from an airborne virus! “But the freedom of choice!”

This has nothing to do with freedom, in no sense of the word. This is ignorance. And basically, if you find yourself on the receiving end of it, this is the opposite of “nothing else to lose”. It is dependence on the mercy of others. It is everything to lose – your mental integrity, your physical integrity, and in the worst cases, your life!

Freedom is not a completely worry-free alley all the way. It’s not that you get everything at the expense of others. It’s not a blank check to do whatever you want. Our freedom ends where the freedom of others to remain free of pain, trauma and injury begins. It’s a negotiation process that involves uncomfortable conversations with others and also with yourself about boundaries, needs and fears.

Freedom is not “nothing left to lose” in a sense that leaves nothing to care for – freedom is the state where we don’t have to fear losing anything. And by now I understand that that’s what Janis Joplin is singing about. The main character in the song is not free of worries. But there is lightness in her time with Bobby. There is room to think about other things. There is freedom in freedom!