Letters from Esther #35: The Last Time I Felt Free…

Esther Perel and Mary Alice Miller

Shall We Begin?

“The last time I felt free was when I sang without worrying if I sang well.

The last time I felt free was when I lost track of time. 

The last time I felt free was when I didn’t have to take care of anyone or be responsible. 

The last time I felt free was when I knew where the night began, but not where it would end. 

The last time I felt free is when I actively engaged with the unknown, voluntarily, in a playful way.

The last time I felt free is when no one else’s opinion mattered more than my own.”

Last week, I was playing my card game with a friend and these were my answers to the prompt card I drew: “The Last Time I Felt Free...” I ran my thumb across the delicate blue letters on the familiar tan card, looked up, and asked him, “what is it for you?” 

“When I went diving in the Red Sea,” he said. 

“What makes that a feeling of freedom for you?” I asked. 

“I feel playful, unrestrained, unbounded. I feel at one with the underworld of the sea.”

This card is one of my favorites, not only because of the range of answers it inspires but because of the variety of interpretations. It’s because that word—“Freedom”—means so many different things to different people.

Do you define freedom as: 

  • from something or freedom to something? 
  • a sense of peace?
  • unrestrained, flowing without boundaries or limits, and unbridled? 
  • a sense of intense focus, unencumbered by intrusion? 
  • an unalienable right to something?
  • the outcome of when you get something you are fighting for?

I have asked this question all over the world. The feeling of freedom tends to align. Perhaps ironically, the word “surrender” comes up a lot: we feel free when we can surrender into ourselves, into an experience, into each other. But the ways we attain that feeling differ so much based on our circumstances. In many places I have traveled, the answers have to do with dancing

When I asked a friend overloaded with work and childcare, her answer was “when I went hiking by myself.” It’s not the hiking; it’s the fact that when she’s alone, she doesn’t have to answer to anyone. Another person answered “in BDSM experiences with a trusted partner.” Another said “at least a decade ago, when I didn’t feel like I was being spied on by my phone.” And another: “when I went to the country my parents are from, where people looked like me; for the first time, I wasn’t constantly aware of the gaze of others.” I’ll never forget the answer of a person who had been forced to flee their home and leave everything behind: “when I could sit in my kitchen and choose coffee or tea.” For some of us, freedom is being able to leave home. For others, freedom is being able to return home or create a new one. Our relationship to freedom is as complex as our relationships to self, to family, to culture, to government, and to history. 

So many of the answers I’ve heard about freedom have had to do with daring, going beyond a threshold, but there’s always a secondary experience of safety. We feel free when we can let go because we know there’s someone else who can receive us. We feel free when we can climb to the top of the rock wall because we know the rope will catch us. We feel free when we can cry or laugh aloud without judgment. Freedom involves fighting, rebellion. We feel free when we decide how we want to live and how we want to die. We all need freedom and security, which is why when the world doesn’t feel safe, we often don’t feel as free.

I’m curious about how you make your own moments of freedom. When I posed this question to my online community, the answers flooded in. Some of your experiences of freedom were beautiful in their simplicity: when you and your friend made dinner together, chatted about life, relationships, politics, shoe sizes, and untangled jewelry and ran on the grass until you fell into open belly laughter. And I thought to myself: that’s it. That’s the feeling. 

But another one of your responses stuck with me, too: “I feel free when the idea of freedom leaves me. I feel neither free nor unfree when I see how much imagery, claims—made and given—lie in these words. And suddenly freedom appears in the crowded subway.”

Let’s Turn the Lens on You 

Finding small moments of freedom.

  • Answer the prompt: “the last time I felt free…”
  • Recall that feeling or experience in as much detail as you can. 
  • Write it down. 
  • What are three defining emotions you associate with your experience of freedom?
  • What thoughts and activities do you associate with those emotions? 
  • Can you do one of those activities this week? 

More From Esther

“How Are You?” / a recent newsletter

In response to tragedy after tragedy, many of us are cycling through fight, flight, and freeze responses faster than we can finish a cup of coffee. In this letter, we take a moment to acknowledge some of these challenges and what we can do in the face of empathic exhaustion. 

“Eroticism in Hard Times” / a newsletter

​​When times are tough, Eroticism is what inspires us to survive—and even to thrive—despite all odds.

“How Erotic Thinking Helps Emotional Connection” / a blog

Creativity is where Eroticism lives. Powered by curiosity, intuition, and the energy of imagination, creativity invites us into the unknown. And Eroticism is about bringing adventure back into play.

​​Conversation Starters

A compendium of highly recommended sources of inspiration and information       

I’m Reading & Listening To:

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Resources for Gun Violence Awareness:

Resources for Ukraine: 

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