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.

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