Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Freedom, To and From

I have trouble describing freedom in positive terms. When I think of "freedom", what comes to mind is freedom -from- something. If I am free from something, that thing is not a presence in my life. For example, I could be free from homework, which would mean not having any homework. Less trivially, I could be free from fear: there would be no fear in my life. But the idea behind freedom from X is not having any requirements or obligations with regard to that X. Trivially again, I could be free with regard to my homework, which means not being required to do that homework, or perhaps that the consequences of doing or not doing the homework do not matter. Or in terms of fear, being free from fear really is about not being burdened or oppressed by fear: being unaffected by fear.

So what would complete freedom look like? Complete freedom could mean freedom from everything (complete in terms of breadth), or a somehow more intense freedom (complete in terms of depth), or maybe both. Freedom from everything could mean -lacking- everything, according to the initial definition. This would mean a completely empty life: no possessions, no emotions, no achievements, etc. Clearly, this is not the idea we are looking for. Under my modified definition of freedom, freedom from everything would mean being unconstrained by everything, not obligated to anything. I think this would mean being unaffected by everything, however. (AGREE/DISAGREE??)

To my mind, being that detached from everything would be sad and boring, though, because if you don't care about anything at all, then there can be neither pleasure nor pain nor purpose in your life. The idea of detachment does have a sort of aesthetic appeal, though. Sometimes it seems like it would be worth giving up pleasure in order to be free from pain. My impression is that this is part of the Buddhist ideal: desire causes suffering, so you should endeavor to free yourself from having desires. Most of the time, though, I feel like that variety of freedom/detachment/distance would lead to a colorless, sterile experience of life, rather than a rich and exciting experience, and that the trade would be a bad one.

What about freedom that is complete in depth? Contrasting "deep" freedom with "wide" freedom implies that wide freedom would, in fact, be shallower, and deep freedom would be narrower, i.e., would exclude some types of freedom. Under this idea, you could be free in a complete manner but not be free from everything. I think the premise here would have to be that some types of freedom are desirable and others aren't, and that deep freedom would mean you were free only in the desirable ways. Alternately, we could say that only some types of freedom are "real" or "true," and that deep freedom would mean having all the true freedoms, but not the false freedoms. This is effectively the same as the previous premise (assuming that truth and reality are desirable). In any case, deep freedom would not have as large a set of freedoms as wide freedom.

To make up for having a smaller set of freedoms, each element in the set would have be somehow larger, if deep freedom is to have the same "magnitude" as wide freedom (i.e., also be complete). I have to admit, I'm not sure what exactly that would look like, or at any rate, how to go about describing this depth/largeness/greatness of freedom. (IDEAS?)

Perhaps my initial comments about freedom as an absence vs. as a lack of obligation apply here. Being free from homework in a shallow way would mean having no homework. Being free from homework in a deep way would mean having an unforced choice about how to interact with the homework. Maybe the professor said that this homework is optional, or maybe because you did all the previous homework assignments, your choice of whether to do this homework or not will have no impact on your grade. But maybe an even deeper variety of freedom from homework would mean that even though your choice about the homework does affect your grade in the class, your GPA, your learning, your reputation, etc., and even though you recognize all those ramifications of your choice, those are not the constraints that determine your choice. You are free with regard to the homework because your choice about the homework happens on a higher level than the homework itself. You make a choice based on some overarching principle, or some higher set up priorities. By higher, I mean less situation-specific, more general, more abstract. Bigger-picture. (That is a rather vague and formless definition. BETTER DEFINITION?) For instance, I could choose to do the homework because I believe it will enrich my mind rather than because it will get me a better grade on the test. (I might be mixing levels here, though... Please comment/correct if you think I am.)

This might work better with the example of fear. Let's go with fear of political persecution for holding some belief. You could be free from this fear on a shallow level: political persecution for that belief simply doesn't happen in the environment you exist in. (Hmm, perhaps shallow is not a good word here after all. SUGGESTIONS?) This is a fear that just isn't present in your life, so you are free from it.

But let's say you do live in an environment such that this persecution is a real fact of life. What would it mean to be free from this fear in that circumstance? The deeper freedom would be to be aware of the consequences of your belief and of the reality of the persecution--i.e., still be affected by the fear/persecution--but nonetheless to live without fear because you take your security and identity from a source that the political persecution and all its consequences cannot touch.

I think that at this point, at this depth of freedom, the question changes from "free from what?" to "free to what?" or even "free for what?" The answer: you are free for whatever higher cause guides your life and sets you free from this particular thing (and potentially from all other oppressions, if the cause is high enough). You are free to pursue that cause and that purpose. And here is a positively defined freedom! Freedom is the ability to pursue the ideal or cause or purpose that you believe in. Freedom is the ability to enjoy that ideal or cause or purpose once you attain it (if that is possible).

With this variety of freedom, you can respond to all sorts of events, but they do not shake you. You can choose how to be affected, because everything is evaluated relative to your higher framework.

I think this is the kind of freedom the Psalmist means when he says, "I run in the path of your commands, for you have set my heart free," and the kind of freedom Paul means when he writes, "It was for freedom that Christ has set us free," and the kind of freedom that is behind the jubilant exclamation, "Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, I'm free at last."

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