We are all free range chickens

When most of us hear the term “free range chicken,” we probably imagine chickens wandering freely within a yard, cavorting (or at least picking around) wherever they like. The reality is actually very different. “Free range” is a label applied to the living situation of chickens, referring to access to open spaces. There has to be an open door to the chicken coop, and chickens must have the opportunity to exit and walk around, but they don’t actually have to do it. And, from what I understand, most don’t. They just sit, the same as if the door was closed.

When it comes to labeling chickens, it’s not the exercise of freedom that defines the chicken, it’s the opportunity—the possibility—of freedom.

Whether this is what we want for our chickens or not, it’s a useful metaphor for us as humans. We like to have exits, choices, options—even ones we never take advantage of. There’s a big difference between the life you choose and the life you are forced into, even if it’s the same life.

Like my friend, who told me that it was only after becoming eligible for retirement and gaining financial freedom that she realized she actually liked her job. Or the committed, loving couple who’ve lived together for years but won’t get married, because it’s “too suffocating.” Just knowing that we have a choice lets us view our circumstances differently and might even result in being satisfied with what we have. It’s nice to have a door, just in case.

But there’s another way to look at this metaphor, perhaps one that is closer to the psychology (do chickens have psychology?) of the chickens themselves. And that’s when we are the free range chickens who stay trapped in the coop and never even realize that there is a door. It’s the times when we have choices, but fail to see them.

This was one of the many lessons of the pandemic. When our lives were suddenly changed, some people saw that they had more options than they thought. They realized they were leading a life chosen through momentum, default, or happenstance, and it took a full disruption of society to help them see differently. Notable things like illness, divorce, near-death experiences, or major milestones understandably prompt people to reexamine their lives, perhaps seeing options they had previously ignored. But we shouldn’t have to wait for some big event in order to imagine other possibilities; all we need to do is wonder. What if we chose differently? What else could we do, if we had to? What’s the worst that could happen? Not everyone is blessed with such opportunities, but the difference between being truly trapped and failing to see the available options may be a matter of perspective.

It’s OK to be the free range chicken who knows there’s a door and decides to stay in the coop. It’s also OK to be the one who chooses to stand up and walk outside. But try not to be the one who doesn’t even realize they have a choice.

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