Autonomy, independence, and freedom

Autonomy begins to develop in early childhood, continues into adolescence, and often becomes the preoccupation of many adults.

Sep 29, 2023

By Prof Xavier V. Pereira

Erik Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development is a widely popular theory of human development. Erikson divided the human life cycle into eight stages, and introduced a psychosocial task or existential crises that needed to be resolved in each stage. One of these is autonomy. Autonomy can be described as the development of a sense of independence in oneself and the emergence of abilities to perform in many different tasks and activities.

Autonomy begins to develop in early childhood, continues into adolescence, and often becomes the preoccupation of many adults. I am sure you, like me, have heard adult friends and relatives saying — “I want to eventually be my own boss” This striving for autonomy, personal independence and freedom often perpetuates into the later stages of adulthood.

The development and encouragement of autonomy in children and teenagers can result in young people becoming more independent and feeling more comfortable in making decisions, exploring their surroundings more freely and having a sense of self control. Although autonomy is inherent, being a natural element of healthy human development, it can also be nurtured. Thus, our activities and programmes with the young should ideally nurture autonomy.

There is a tendency to label the striving for autonomy as oppositional behaviour — disobedience or insubordination because obedience is paramount in the society that we live in. Children below the age of 18 are expected to be obedient to parents, teachers, and other significant adults in their lives. Soldiers must obey the orders of their superior officers without question. Employees must toe the line set by their employers. There is often a struggle between autonomy and undisputed obedience in our daily lives. We want to have the freedom to express ourselves, make our opinions heard and participate in personal and collective decisions in the context of our families, our work environments, and the religious institutions that we belong to. Religious priests, brothers and nuns must take a vow of obedience in addition to the vows of poverty and chastity. The vow of obedience is often the most difficult one to adhere to.

Obedience is a precept which permeates the monotheistic Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Is there a healthy alternative to halfhearted obedience? I believe there is. I would like to broach the idea or concept of collaborative accountability. Collaborative accountability requires working and discerning collectively the Will of God with regard to the roles and responsibilities of the individual in the community he or she is a part of, and society in general.

Collaborative accountability respects one’s individuality and yet does not absolve a person from responsibility to his or her family or community. It respects the freedom to express oneself for the good of all without transgressing the rights of others. Collaborative accountability encourages healthy discussion, dialogue, and debate in endeavours to discern the Will of God and make appropriate decisions for the communities we live in, the Church and society at large.

One of my favourite Gospel passages is from St Luke ? chapter 2, verses 41 to 52. We often celebrate this passage as the fifth Joyful Mystery in the Rosary, the Finding of the child Jesus in the Temple. This passage reveals to us that Jesus exercised autonomy at the tender age of 12. The progressive growth in maturity of Jesus is documented in this Gospel passage. It is revealed to us that Jesus developed well as a human being — ‘And Jesus increased in wisdom and age, and in divine and human favour’ (Luke 2:32). It is evident that Jesus developed psychologically, socially, spiritually, and in collaborative accountably with God and the people who journeyed with Him in His earthly life.

The development of autonomy is not restricted to individual independence and freedom but also to the collective. Malaysians celebrated Independence Day and Malaysia Day recently. Are we truly free and independent as citizens of an independent nation? There have been examples of the suppression of freedom in the history of our country, one being the stripping of the independence of the judiciary by the fourth prime minister of Malaysia. Freedom of expression is also suppressed in the guise of maintaining law and order, and overcoming the threat of religious and ethnic unrest.

‘With freedom comes great responsibility,’ said Eleanor Roosevelt, a former first lady of the United States of America, and who was described as a political figure, diplomat, and activist. She was credited for the adoption of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations. The great responsibility of the government of a free and independent country is to ensure the rights of all its citizens are respected. Policies that promote exclusivity should be discarded.

People living on the margins of society should be the recipients of affirmative action, not people with influence who manipulate the country’s affirmative action policies to accrue wealth for themselves, their families, and their cronies.
Pope Francis, in his prayer intention last month, focused on people living on the margins of society. The marginalised include the homeless urban poor, children and adults with severe mental and physical disabilities, the rural poor, indigenous people, and refugees. The elected political leaders of our country need to be repeatedly reminded that there is still much to be done for the people who live on the margins in our country. We too are called to be actively involved in attending to people at the margins of society.

The healthy praxis of freedom and responsibility require good decision making. According to brain research supported by the National Institute of Mental Health, USA, the human brain continues to develop and mature until the mid to late twenties. The prefrontal cortex of the brain is one of the last parts to mature, and is responsible for skills like planning, prioritising, and making decisions. This scientific evidence reveals that the last cognitive function to develop is decision making. Based on this evidence, I opposed the proposal to reduce the voting age to 18 at a meeting in 2018 organised by the Health Cluster comprising of NGOs involved in health and human rights, but to no avail. Analysis of the 2022 general elections revealed that young and impressionable 18-year-olds may have been manipulated to make decisions in their voting preferences.

Thus, there is also a need to refer to evidence based research in making free and responsible decisions for the betterment of the communities we live in, the religions we are affiliated to and the nation at large.

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