Thursday, June 30, 2016

Condemned to be Free

"Let Freedom Ring"
- At the Desert Retreat House - 

The highways are crowded and many Americans are already on their way to celebrating the upcoming “4th of July” weekend – the commemoration of that day when we first gained our “freedom” from the bonds imposed upon this land by a foreign power.  

As Independence Day approaches I’ve been reflecting on what it means to be “free”  and I wonder if those of us who live in this “land of the free” really  understand what authentic freedom is really all about?

The existential philosopher, Jean Paul Sartre, talked about the burdens that freedom imposes upon our human condition. He said:

We are condemned to be free;
because once thrown into the world, we responsible for everything we do.
It is up to you to give life meaning.

In essence, freedom is the very hallmark of human nature. Every day we are free to make choices about how to act, what to think and what to do. Even people who are confined to a prison cell are still free to choose how to respond to to their plight in life, and even if we choose not to decide, to remain indifferent or apathetic, we still make a choice and our choice of indifference or inaction always an effect. As the theologian, Harvey Cox, once observed:

Not to decide is to decide.

So since “freedom” is so innate to our humanity the bigger question is how do we make use of our freedom,  how do we handle the burden of responsibility placed upon us by that fact that we are free?

On this Independence Day weekend some may imagine that, because we live in this “land of the free” we are entitled to do whatever pleases us, we are “free from” the tyranny of restrictions. I can still very clearly remember growing up back in the 1960’s where the motto of the day was, “If it feels good, do it.” The hippie era may have ended long ago but, as I see it, the sentiment about doing whatever feels good still very much prevails.

Many people in this country have fallen into a trap of placing personal gratification as a high, if not the highest priority in life. They believe that living in a “land of the free” means that we should place no restrictions upon personal gain and individual comfort, and that our freedom gives us a “green light” to climb as far up the ladder of success as possible, regardless of what it costs to do so, even if our climb means crushing those who are beneath us on the lower rungs.

And yet, if you look at the record of history, any nation or culture that has defined freedom in this way, placing such an emphasis upon individual gratification and personal gain has inevitably led to disaster

Several years ago the psychologist Eric Fromm offered a very helpful distinction between authentic freedom and what may appear to be freedom, but is actually not freedom at all. He defined “authentic freedom” as a “freedom for” and pseudo-freedom as “freedom from.”

Fromm suggested that any person or nation that selfishly sees freedom as a license for self-centered behavior (freedom from others) is not authentically free.  Truly free people act “for” others, on behalf of the common good, making choices to use their freedom to share one another’s burdens.

When Nelson Mandela was locked up for years in a South African prison he had lots of time to seriously reflect on what it might mean to be free.  But instead of just dreaming about the day when they would come and unlock his prison cell,  he concluded that he could never be truly free without concern for the good of others. He even found true freedom by caring about the welfare of the guards who held the keys to his cell.  In fact, in many ways, locked up within a prison cell, Mandela discovered what authentic freedom really means. In his journal he wrote:

To be free is not merely to cast off chains,
but to live in a way that brings about the freedom of others.

On this weekend as many of us celebrate the joy of living in this “land of the free,” let us embrace the burden of our freedom and accept our  responsibility to live “for” others rather than living “free from” them.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Magical Thinking

"A Great Mystery"
- dusk in the desert -

In his insightful op-ed piece in this morning’s New York Times, David Brooks suggested that the rise of nationalism and isolationism spreading across the globe stems from the fact that so many ordinary people today feel as if they have lost a sense of hope - with no hope for a better future people often long for a return to a “mythical” past when things were so much better.   For many people, their world seems to be falling apart and so they look for someone to fix it for them, turning to to people like Donald Trump so he can wave a magic wand and make it all better.

In this morning’s article, Mr. Brooks puts it this way:

Their pain is indivisible: economic stress,
community breakdown, ethnic bigotry
and a loss of social status and self worth.
When people feel their world is vanishing
they are easy prey for fact-free magical thinking
and demagogues who blame immigrants,

As I thought about all this, I reflected back upon those years when our now-adult children were growing up.  I can clearly remember all the many times when the kids got sick or injured or were sad or had problems in school or problems with relationships.  Many times they would come to my wife and I and in essence ask us to “make it all better, take away the pain, make the problems go away.”

The truth is I wanted to do that and if I could have waved some magic wand I would have, but it doesn’t work that way.  We could and did help them out by giving advice, taking them to a doctor, sometimes offering resources; but for the most part, all we could do most of the time was to “hold their hands” through it all and let them know that we were with them and they wouldn’t have to face the chaos of life alone – to this very day we still do that with our kids.

I also wonder if this is how many people understand “God,” especially in times of trouble: the “Daddy in the Sky” who can say a few magic words and fix all the problems of the world? I am reminded about something I read a while ago by the theologian, Daniel Maguire, in his book Christianity without God.

It is an alluring and adolescent temptation for the likes of us to imagine
a divine superbeing with parental passions
who is both omnipotent and all merciful
who will make everything ‘right’ on earth as it is in heaven

Just as a political demagogue or a parent can’t can’t wave a magic wand and make everything right again, so it is with “God” who is more like an “Abiding Presence” than a “Heavenly Father,” an energy of Love flowing in us all and through us all, and it’s up to us to make our lives better and to make this world a better place.

Our oceans and our air are being poisoned and the climate is less and less hospitable for human life. The world is racked by terror, poverty, war, hunger, bigotry, racism and injustice. People suffer from addictions and disease and rampant consumerism continues to eat away at the very fabric of our civilized society. There are lost of lots of things about this world and within our own personal lives that are broken and in chaos.

More than any other time in the history of the world we need to move away from magical thinking. This is the time for each of us to embrace our own sense of moral responsibility for making the world a better place, more compassionate, a more just society.  Empowered by the energy of an “Abiding Love,” it's up to us to some something about it all.

Monday, June 27, 2016


- in my meditation garden -

Yesterday, as he made his way back home from a papal visit to Armenia, Pope Francis told news reporters aboard his plane that Christians owe apologies to gay people and to others who have been offended or exploited by the church.  The pope said:

I believe that the church not only should apologize
to the person who is gay whom it has offended,
but has to apologize to the poor,
to exploited women, to children exploited for labor,
and it has to ask forgiveness for having blessed many weapons.

Fr. James Martin, an American Jesuit priest and magazine editor, called the pope’s apology to gays and lesbians, “a groundbreaking moment,” and I think he’s right.

When I was a boy I was always taught that, above all other people on the globe, the pope was the icon of perfection. The pope was the one person who always had it right and so that’s why we were supposed to listen to whatever he said. So, for me, that image of a pope saying, “we got it wrong and we should apologize to the people who have been hurt by us” was indeed “groundbreaking” in many significant ways.

It seems to me that one of the greatest pitfalls of any “belief system” in any institution is to fall into the trap of thinking: “what we believe is the certain truth and what others outside our system believe is false.”  Religious believers, those who follow the tenets of any spiritual path and even atheists can easily delude themselves into thinking that, “unlike people in the other camp who follow a different way, we are the ones who have discovered the perfect way.”

This is why I found the pope’s call for apologies so groundbreaking yesterday—it called all sorts of believers (not just Catholics or Christians) to be humble enough to realize that no one ever has has it “perfectly correct.”  We all make mistakes, we are all flawed, we are all in a process of learning and evolving; and so, offering “apologies” is indeed a necessary discipline along the way.

Franciscan priest and author, Richard Rohr, puts it this way:

The demand for the perfect is the greatest enemy of the good

If we can’t say “I’m sorry,” because we have such high esteem for always having it right, we are stuck in a rut and can never thrive along any spiritual path.

As I’ve reflected on yesterday’s “groundbreaking” apology aboard the papal airplane,  it also came to me that apologizing to those whom we have wronged is also a way of esteeming and raising up those who have been put down,.

Pope Francis is the first pope to take his name after that of the renowned 13th century saint, Francis of Assisi.  Following in the “way” of Jesus, Saint Francis taught his disciples to live a life of “simplicity.”  Richard Rohr explains what this rule of “simple living” means:

When you live simply
you find a natural solidarity with people at the bottom or the edge
because you stop idealizing the climb
and find there is no top anyway.

The pope’s call to apologize to those who are at the bottom or at the edge of society is in fact a call to “live simply,” the very same call Jesus himself issued to any who would follow in his “way.”

There is no shame in saying “I’m sorry,” in fact it is a badge of honor.