Freedom to Choose

John Norlin · July 3, 2018


As July approaches each year, the thought of freedom comes to the forefront of my mind. Yes, one could think of the freedoms connected to life liberty and the pursuit of happiness and there is much debate around these topics right now in our country. Many people when they hear the word freedom think of the soldiers that have fought for the freedom to live in a democracy instead of dictatorship. These freedoms are definitely something to not be taken for granted, nor kept for oneself, but instead used to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to live free regardless of belief, race, gender, or political views. When I think of freedom though, one of the first things that comes to mind is our freedom to choose.

As a high school teacher for a decade I taught an elective course called ‘Principles of Leadership’ each day. The class focused on teaching strong character and relationships skills through a servant-leadership model that came from a book called The Servant: A Simple Story about the True Essence of Leadership by James C. Hunter, which changed my life. Mr. Hunter’s servant-leadership model became something that we could hang everything off of. It provided a common language and clarity on how you could build influence in the lives of those around you. It was upside down and countercultural compared to how I was taught leadership growing up and I loved it. It made so much sense to me, yet I couldn’t figure out why more people did not utilize the principles and practices of servant-leadership. Eventually I figured out the reason why.

As I taught students the topic of servant-leadership and continued to practice the principles in my own life, I quickly learned one of the big misconceptions of servant-leadership. Many times when I would choose to put a smile on my face, greet people each morning with positivity, or give an out of the blue compliment, people would tell me later in our relationship that at first they thought I was “fake”. This confused me at first until I started to ask questions and then it made sense. People informed me that they thought I was “fake” because “nobody can be that positive each day”. This was not only false, but sad. Of course someone could be consistent and predictable in mood and action each day if they chose to be. The disappointing part was that so many people, including myself, are controlled by their emotions on more days than we would like to admit, that the belief from many people is that “nobody can act in patience and kindness each day consistently, so it must be fake”. I started thinking of all the times that my feelings controlled how positive or negative my day was and then it made sense to me why a specific part of the servant-leadership course always ranked so high when students would identify the most important things they learned over the semester.

In the servant-leadership model that we taught each semester we would talk about leadership being defined as influence and that the way to build positive influence was through service and sacrifice. The model then talked about the way one serves and sacrifice and that the answer was love. Love? Seriously? Yes, but not the type of love that many of us think of when we hear the word. In fact, we have been totally cheated in the English language, because they only gave us one word for love. I can be holding hands with my wife and walking downtown where we live and look over and see an ice cream shop and say, “I love ice cream” and then ten steps later look over at my wife and say, “I love you too!” Is it the same thing? I hope not, because tomorrow I may not FEEL like I want ice cream, but I still hope I love my wife! So many times we get confused in the English language because the word love is associated with emotions or the FEELING of being in love. The Greeks got it right though. They used multiple words for love.

Storge - Love of Family. Affection.

Philia - Love of Friends. Commonality.

Eros - Romantic Love. Attraction.

Agape - Unconditional. Deliberate Choice.

In each of the first three types of love, feelings are involved, but then there is the last one which is uniquely different. It is an unconditional type of love and a deliberate choice. In a world that says, “I will love you if I feel like it or if it is convenient”. Agape love says, “Actions first, let the feelings follow”.

This is real freedom instead of being controlled daily by your emotions. Real freedom is acting in patience toward others, even when they are really hard to deal with. Real freedom is being kind toward others by paying attention and giving encouragement, even though you don’t feel like you have the time or energy. Real freedom is forgiving others by letting go of resentment towards them because you have the humility to realize that they make mistakes just like you and you are capable of separating the person from the behavior and treating them with respect the next time you see them. Real freedom is not letting your emotions control the mood of your day but instead your attitude, which you can choose each hour and each moment with people you like and people you don’t like. When we intentionally work on choosing to be the person that we want to be when interacting with others, instead of basing our actions on how we feel, we begin to discipline our character, even in times of difficulty and adversity. This is real freedom, this is what it means to be CharacterStrong.


John Norlin

John Norlin is a Co-Founder of CharacterStrong, a Servant Leadership trainer, and motivational speaker. He was Washington Advisor of the Year, taught 5 leadership classes per semester for 10 years at Sumner High School, and was a Program Administrator for the Whole Child for five years.