- a desert hummingbird -
Referring to what he imagined as “restrictions” to his unhinged campaign rhetoric, a candidate in the upcoming presidential election recently announced, “I have taken off the shackles and now I am free to do anything I want in order to get elected.” When I heard this announcement the other day it struck me that many people may understand the nature of “freedom” in this very same way: taking off the shackles so that you can do or say whatever you want.
Some (perhaps many) American citizens imagine that, because we live in this “land of the free” we are entitled to do whatever pleases us because 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, believing that our "freedom" guarantees that we should place no restrictions upon what we say or do in order to achieve that end. So, in a political campaign (even if you are competing for the highest office in the nation) you should have the “freedom” to say or do whatever it takes to get elected.
Many people people see freedom as a “green light” for climbing as far up the ladder of success as possible, regardless of what it costs to do so, even if the climb means crushing those who are 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 fallen into disaster.
As I see it authentic freedom has little or nothing to do with removing restrictions; instead, genuine freedom always involves accepting the burden of responsibility.
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.
Interestingly enough, rather than understanding “freedom” as “taking off the shackles,” the existential philosopher, Jean Paul Sartre, talked about the burden 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.
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?
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 unlock his prison cell and allow him to go back home, 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.
In these last few weeks before the presidential election I hope and pray that true “freedom” may indeed be the “clear bell” that is sounded in this country from sea to shining sea.