Speak Freely or Die

In the spring of 1970 just after the Kent State shootings things were extremely tense on college campuses. My campus at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) was no exception. It was a time of drastic transformation, courage and unrest. Yet during those pressure-packed days the IUP administration made an uncharacteristically wise decision. Black Power members and other radical students decided they wanted to demonstrate by walking a route right through the heartland of the two groups on campus who felt threatened the most by the rapid change, the ROTC (reserve officers training) headquarters and the athletic field house.

University officials knew that the peace could not be kept by anyone in uniform. They also knew that they couldn’t deny the request to demonstrate. Their solution was pure genius. They asked my fraternity, the Brothers of Sigma Tau Gamma, to march on the outside ring of the demonstrators to act as a buffer of peace and sanity between both groups.

In 1968 I was a ROTC cadet myself but the Vietnam War changed everything. I opted out – and by 1970 I was a longhaired wild man wearing cut-off bib overalls. My fraternity was asked to serve that day because of our unique makeup. Some of us had become full-fledged hippies and some of us remained hard-core jocks. I was proudly both and I did inhale. Because we had the respect of both sides we were the buffer least likely to fan the flames of hate. Now it was up to the Brothers of Sigma Tau; would we accept this perilous assignment?

As I look back on those times I find it fascinating that I was my wildest, most courageous and most unrestricted self during those college years. It also was the time when I felt the most freedom. We could choose to go to class or to honor the fallen students at Kent State by not attending. We could choose to remain silent and buy what our government was selling or we could express ourselves freely in protest.

Is there a connection between the freedom of self-determination and the freedom of self-expression? Darn right there is. They go hand-in-hand.

Employees have less of both freedoms. We self-employed get to choose, but even among the ranks of the self-employed we sometimes choose an inauthentic silence.

We suppress our freedom of self-expression when we hold back from saying what we really want to say. We restrict ourselves because we are afraid of some undesirable consequence.

Self-censorship is all about fear. It could be a fear of standing out, offending, being judged, or fear of what others might think of us. What’s behind that fear? Why do we care so much? Could it be a primal fear of crossing cultural lines and of being left alone because our tribe no longer accepts us?

Or is it simply fear-based economics? If we believe that there is only so much good to go around, aren’t we more likely to censor what we express for fear of offending? For example we could believe that by taking a spiritual or political stance we may adversely affect a hiring or buying decision? Business blogging gurus say that it’s simply good sense to play it safe. But when we play it safe, are we really living our lives on our terms? Or are we just pretending?

Are we afraid that once we are totally exposed, fewer people will like us or support us as we really are? Stripped of our fears, who are we?

Without your fears who are you? Really consider this question for a bit. Who are you without your fears? Are you more or less yourself? Are you happier? Stronger? In the absence of fear are you not more carefree?

What good might happen if you decided let go of your fears and freely express? When we hold back from revealing our whole truth, aren’t we saying that the opinions of others matter more to us than our own? Isn’t this a pretty small way to live?

Where in your life are you playing it safe and thus way too small?

Anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you.

David Whyte, from his poem Sweet Darkness

Holding back is choosing to play it safe. Just so, exaggeration also masks the real you. Hiding behind a facade of exaggeration is a most cowardly form of self-censorship. Where are you exaggerating the truth to make yourself appear other than you are?

If you do not pretend to be more than you are, you will dare to be all that you are.

Susan Thesenga

Might that dare be your call to aliveness? Might it be your time it to show yourself, bruises, baggage and all?

What if the question is not why am I so infrequently the person I really want to be, but why do I so infrequently want to be the person I really am? Oriah Mountain Dreamer

Without your fears, you are a gloriously wonderful human being. You came here to do something remarkable. The world needs your special contribution. Isn’t it time to speak up before the real you withers away and dies? If you could remember to be who you are more often, how would this change your willingness to freely express yourself?

What did the Brothers of Sigma Tau do? Yes we were both hippies and jocks but we were first brothers. So we marched and we kept the peace that day. Right on.