Lately, I’ve been thinking about freedom. It’s a beautiful word, a beautiful idea. I grew up believing it was an ultimate good. Something so pure that nothing could corrupt it. Now I’m not so sure. Black-and-white on the textbook page, it seemed so simple. A clear binary alternative to injustice.
Freedom versus slavery. Freedom versus oppression. American versus British.
But nothing seems clear these days. The boundaries are getting blurry, and it’s getting harder to keep freedom from getting muddied by the blur. I find myself flipping old dog-eared pages of Dostoevsky, that copy I left in a water spot on the counter half a lifetime ago, and now a part of the cover has peeled right away:
“Eh, brother, but nature must be corrected and guided, otherwise we’d all drown in prejudices.”
Yes. I feel my head under something. Feels a lot like prejudice, and not just mine. It’s flowing, blurring, burying, and I don’t know about you, friend, but I don’t feel free.
Who can be free when nature runs wild? When impulse and whim are hailed as freedom, cast in gold, and put on pedestals until obligation, duty, authority have been declared the enemy, have been toppled and trampled and are distrusted on sight?
Nature is not free. It can’t be, if you think about it. Nature is bound unto itself, its form. It is slavish. Saint Paul talks about that. How freedom can be a double-edged sword and sometimes the freest thing is to say no to my own nature.
You know, I checked my dictionary. Would you believe it has no less than 17 definitions for freedom? Among them:
- the release from duty, obligation, etc.
- frankness of manner or speech
- the absence of ceremony
- the right to enjoy or use at will
- the power to exercise choice without constraint from within or without
Sounds nice, doesn’t it? But, I can’t help wondering:
What happens when we bump up against each other in this life? What happens when my freedom rubs up against yours and we realize you can’t have your cake while I’m eating it?
When a husband exercises freedom to release himself from that onerous obligation to his family, from the bondage of his marriage vows: What happens to the wife he leaves behind? To their children? What happens to their freedom?
If I exercise my freedom to speak my troubled mind, abandon ceremony, unburden myself on someone else’s heart, on some internet thread until I bring all conversation crashing down–is anyone truly better? Is anyone truly free? Aren’t I just a slave: entrapped by my own pride, my fear of attack, my need to be right?
When a young man decides to embrace a policy of free love, to exercise his “right to enjoy and use at will” the body of another as if she were a library book, a stick of gum, a cigarette to flick aside how is this freedom? Is it not nature taking over, running bewilderingly wild, blurring, burying, binding us to all our basest instincts and leaving human lives like so much litter in the wake?
Freedom, like man it seems, cannot exist on its own. Freedom by its very nature is always an escape from something, an end of something. But what happens when that something is someone else’s freedom? Someone else’s security? Someone else’s life? Maybe it used to be clearer, but good and bad these days, they tend to blur together, and what was once so black-and-white is now a muddy mess of gray.
I find myself longing for the days during which (I imagine) it was all so much clearer. Maybe it was no clearer. Maybe it’s only that hindsight is 20/20.
It’s easy to pick the good guys when you know who wins and what the fallout of a fight for freedom wrought.
I am grateful, so grateful to the men and women who fought and died: who gave freedom–my freedom–its birth, its chance. But if I’m honest, so much freedom can feel exhausting. (Can I say that?) It’s not that I don’t appreciate it, but when obligation becomes the enemy, freedom becomes an idol. Selfish, tainted. I don’t think that’s the America any of us believed in. It’s certainly not the shining, incorruptible, beautiful thing I admired as a schoolgirl.
And maybe that’s the point.
Maybe that is the American Dream: a freedom that is something more than selfish.
The possibility of having it all…and choosing the harder path: embracing the freedom to lay down all I have a right to so that someone else can have their own taste of freedom.
Freedom stained by sacrifice, now that is a beautiful idea.