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What does freedom mean in 2022?

The Jewish festival of Passover (Pesach in Hebrew) which I am celebrating now, commemorates the exodus of the Jewish people from slavery and their captivity in Egypt more than 3000 years ago. It is celebrated with a traditional meal called a seder with family and the eating of matzah (unleavened bread). Matzah is eaten to remember that the Jewish people were escaping slavery in such a hurry that they did not have time for their bread to rise, hence we eat unleavened bread during Passover. There are other symbolic foods eaten during the seder meal, for example horseradish which is a symbol of the bitterness of slavery, and parsley which is dipped in saltwater to remember the pain and tears shed by the Israelites as slaves. All these symbols help to bring the past to life at the table.

At the heart of Passover is that in every generation we are obligated to see ourselves as though we personally came out of Egypt. Empathy is central to the festival - not only are we asked to tell the story and to pass the story down to the next generation, but the emphasis is on us to feel as though we too were being set free.

The Passover story has never felt so current as this year. We are witnessing real-life exoduses across the globe. Today there may be as many as 46 million people living in modern slavery (child soldiers, sex trafficking, forced labour, domestic servitude). In 2020, over 33 million children around the world (including, in addition to others, up to 4.5 million Ukrainian children in the past several weeks) were forcibly displaced by conflict, famine and disaster.

This year, 24 members of my family got together for our Seder meal (age range 9-87 years old). It felt incredibly special that we had been granted the freedom this year to get together in person. Last year some of us had a partial seder meal via Zoom. It wasn’t the same!

My children (aged nine and eleven) read a passage to everyone there, recognising that not every child is free like them and focusing on refugee children of the world and our responsibility to take action to bring the world’s refugee children to safety. It was very moving. For me the heart of the Passover story is not a story from ancient times but sadly a story for all times. A story of now. It’s one of persecution, justice, finding freedom, remembering history and our responsibility to help others now.

I am often struck by the complexities of what freedom is and as a Clinical Psychologist I think about the meaning of psychological freedom. A significant component underpinning many psychological therapy approaches is the importance of freeing oneself from constraining ideas, beliefs, thoughts, labels placed on us by ourselves or others. But often not enough focus is placed on the wider factors impacting on our freedom.

In the pursuit of freedom, what is often minimised is recognition of the impact of wider social factors such as poverty, discrimination and inequality, along with traumas such as abuse and violence, all of which contribute to how much freedom we have or perceive we have.

And if we talk about freedom, we must talk about power. The Power, Threat, Meaning Framework (developed by a group of senior psychologists (Lucy Johnstone et al) developed their framework as an alternative to more traditional models based on psychiatric diagnosis.

Rather than focusing on psychiatric ‘symptoms’ the Framework summarises and integrates a great deal of evidence about the role of various kinds of power in people’s lives, the impact on us of misuses and abuses of power, and the ways we have learned to respond to threat. The Framework looks at how we make sense of these difficult experiences, and how messages from wider society can increase our feelings of shame, self-blame, isolation, fear and guilt.

As I consider the impact of the Covid 19 pandemic over the last two years and debates about our freedom, Nelson Mandela’s words have never seemed more relevant:

“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others”.

As a leader in the NHS, reflecting on the Passover story, this year I intend to focus on empathy, addressing injustice, power imbalance and inequalities, and I feel a huge responsibility to act and help others, acknowledging my position of privilege and freedom.

Our lives matter, our choices matter. Freedom comes with responsibility.

But the fundamental challenges for us all to consider are:

  • What does it mean to be free?

  • How much freedom do we feel we have in different contexts of our lives?

  • How are we going to use the freedom we have in the coming year?

Dr Philippa Hyman




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