“Liberty or business school?!” A classic choice. For the tens of thousands of business students in the United States, school is a grind and when it’s over they’re happy to be free. For my friend and former student Vick, business school really meant going to prison. Or rather, staying in prison. Let me explain. Vick asked me this one day on the campus of the University of North Carolina. I was surprised to see him there. Vick was a convicted felon and up to that day I had expected to see him only during my visits to the prison where he lived. Vick attended UNC classes alongside twenty thousand traditional undergraduates through a “study-release” program.
Vick was a straight-A student before and during his incarceration. He had applied and recently been admitted to North Carolina’s MBA program. Addicted to cocaine, Vick qualified for financial assistance through the Americans with Disabilities Act. He was also up for parole at semester’s end. When the gods rain luck, they pour it on. In Vick’s world, parole and an MBA couldn’t go together. Vick was from Florida and was only imprisoned in North Carolina because he’d been picked up there. His parole conditions would require him to live in Florida. Parole meant freedom, but staying in prison meant a free MBA from a top business school.
Vick’s dilemma illustrates what I call Captive Liberty. It was first inspired by “The Prisoner” television series. The protagonist, a retired spy called Number Six, torments his captors while he is their prisoner on a remote and surreal island. There’s no doubt that he’s their prisoner. He can’t leave and his keepers abuse his person and dignity. But his attitude is one of utter and complete resistance. He refuses to be a prisoner. As Victor Frankl writes of a far darker time: “Everything can be taken from a man or a woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
I believe we all visit both sides of this Prisoner/Not a Prisoner paradox in our lives. Use your power over your own attitude to hold onto the hope that comes with being Not a Prisoner no matter the setting. At the same time, it’s important to remember that some of the ways we think we are free veil serious constraints. It’s unlikely that it will be as obvious in your life as it is in my friend Vick’s, so it’s worth a few moments inspection to see how you are free despite life’s limitations but also how you may be bound by the things that you think keep you free.
Quick example from my own life: the grocery store. Modern American grocery stores are the epitome of freedom of choice. Most shoppers revel in the four hundred different cereal flakes and produce from faraway Australia. I don’t. When I go to the grocery store, I feel like I’m in prison. I fold up inside myself and hurtle down the aisles, past the register, and out the door. This behavior is unusual for me. I’m pretty easy going and comfortable in my skin. Only my therapist and I know the root of this mundane illustration of Captive Liberty.
Incidentally, I don’t know what Vick decided. He was leaning toward passing on his parole, but I never saw him again.
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