essays

What freedom means to me

A little over two years ago, I took the following photo while touring Mount Rushmore on my way to graduate school in Wisconsin.

At the time, I marveled at how tiny the destination actually looks in person, and also at how overwhelmingly white the rock features are. (I mean this literally, although of course the men depicted are also white. Metaphors abound.) Additionally, I overheard snippets of conversation at the site that seemed to encapsulate attitudinal differences across America. Behind me, a white man asked a black woman, “Who else do you think should be up there?” She said lightly, “Obama.” He laughed: “What’s he done? I mean, this ain’t political, but what’s he done?” The black woman didn’t say anything else, but I wondered what she was thinking in her silence.

Another snapshot I happened to witness along my journey was the annual biker’s convention in Sturgis, South Dakota. I spent the night nearby in Keystone, and the town was populated by thousands of mainly white Trump supporters who bought T shirts in support of the president, rode around revving their engines, and loudly got drunk. The entire event now seems a precursor of the controversy that would surround Mount Rushmore two years later.

At the time I looked up at those four men’s faces etched into that stone, I thought a lot about freedom and what it had and hadn’t meant and to whom, and I have continued to think about these topics in the years since. At the present moment, I believe a debate about what freedom means, and what it can mean, is central to our American project.

For one, the bitter irony that must be faced is that relatively few people have experienced freedom as it is heralded in the declaration of independence. At the time this document was written, the founding fathers had secured theirs and their brethren’s freedom while enslaving Africans, denying women the right to vote, and having attempted a genocide of Native American peoples. This dynamic has continued to present day, with further distributions of freedom being accomplished not through a philanthropic process, but rather through bitter, endangered fights from the margins. For examples, see the women’s suffrage movement, Civil Rights movement, current Black Lives Matter movement, and many, many more.

As another important point, the kind of freedom signaled by the phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is entirely individualistic, and as such doesn’t make us happy. Relevant authors here include David Foster Wallace and Brett Easton Ellis, well-off white men who exposed the emptiness of a life lived in individualistic excess. To the degree that we pursue our own success as individuals at the expense of others, we become alone, necessitating greater and greater intakes of forms of drug in order to feel a brief high. Another relevant author here is Hunter S. Thompson, who began to illuminate this dynamic in his epic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The central themes of this work, as well as Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, include emptiness, narcissism, and addiction, and it is no coincidence that America now has a narcissist for president and many growing crises of addiction.

As the previous paragraph begins to suggest, the individualistic sort of freedom also necessitates that we trample others. One could already see the roots of this in the aforementioned ironies of the declaration of independence–white men had secured their freedom from Britain, but precisely by enslaving, abjecting, and killing others–but the dynamic continues in the ongoing life of the American economy. If the guarantors of my happiness include a plot of land, a certain amount of disposable income and savings, and innumerable gadgets or trophies, how then to acquire those but to best and thus marginalize others? There is only so much land to go around, if it is divided as property; our economy requires poor people in order to produce wealthy ones by contrast; our gadgets require slaves in a foreign land. In a very real sense, when I drive around in a nice car to a remunerative job, the homeless person I see asking for change is a byproduct of my comfort.

Recently, we have seen this fact laid even further bare through Coronavirus. As an individual, do I have the “right” to refuse to wear a mask, to social distance, and thereby to endanger the lives of others? I suppose so, or at least a case could be made for this. On the flip-side, do I have the “right” to force others to wear masks and to social distance when they do not want to, even going so far as to shut down their businesses? Does my right to “life” supersede their rights to “liberty” and the “pursuit of happiness”? Again, I suppose so, or at least I could see such a case being made.

The problem with the kind of freedom on which this country is founded is that it cuts us off from what is actually real. It atomizes us from one another and from our surroundings, thus putting us in competition in abstract ways. In a game that seems to be zero sum, and without real care for or understanding of one another, we regularly go so far as to subjugate, even kill one another, often without realizing it, all for the sake of pursuing an individualistic happiness that in the end is nothing but addictive. Rather than genuine well-being, this form of happiness is a substitute, a band-aid.

So what do I propose, then?

I propose that we shift to an understanding of freedom that is very different from that established in the foundational documents of this country. Rather, I am not sure anything needs to be “done” in the traditional sense; as the following writing will make clear, part of the rising understanding of freedom is that it is in fact a form of submission, one in which we relinquish traditional understandings of control.

Relevant authors here include Martin Buber, who famously champions the transition from the “should” (human obligation) to the “must” (spiritual necessity), as well as anyone who has written of profound spiritual transformation, including Eckhart Tolle, David Hawkins, Pema Chodron, and Marianne Williamson. Additionally, there are people who have grasped how spiritual transformation necessitates societal reform, such as Charles Eisenstein and angel Kyodo Williams. In this understanding of freedom, we recognize that true freedom is actually a submission to our nature, a closing of the gap between ideal and reality. In this space, we no longer bear the longing that requires addictive, narcissistic satiation; instead, we become satisfied with who we are, where we are, and the relationships and situations that make up our world. We gain a sense of belonging and, paradoxically, give up some of what might be traditionally regarded as freedoms.

For instance, marriage and childbearing are two common events through which people experience this form of freedom. In marriage, we give up the possibility of sleeping with or experiencing romance with people other than our spouse, as well as a host of other urges that might threaten to break apart the relationship (e.g., locational moves, financial independence, etc), but what we gain is a kind of love that deepens and prospers throughout a lifetime. Similarly, in bearing children, we lastingly and immediately give up the independence to move where we like, do what we like, and care only for ourselves, but what we gain is a feeling of spiritual fulfillment that expands with every day, every moment, the child lives and grows. These kinds of transactions do not feel like sacrifices to the awakened heart; instead, they feel like movements toward real freedom, deepenings of our being that result in irremovable joy.

The case is identical for anyone who has experienced a profound spiritual transformation, as well as anyone who has committed to a profession, a serious goal, etc. In events like this, the subject submits to and is guided by a greater will rather than enforcing its own will upon a sterile universe, and the results are feelings of trust, belonging, and purpose that cannot be ascertained by an individual alone. Through spiritual surrender–which I am arguing is real freedom–the subject experiences dimensions of wholeness, and communion, that are impossible to access or even think from the vantage of the radical individual.

And so part of what I think is happening in this moment, as I watch Black Lives Matter protestors deface and remove statues of some of the very men I saw on Mount Rushmore, is that our understanding of freedom is shifting from the former kind discussed in this essay to the latter. This transition is also visible in the arrival of kinds of candidates for political office we have never formerly seen, such as the aforementioned Marianne Williamson. In these candidates, there is the ability to surrender to spirit and to articulate this process before an electorate who knows the process in their hearts, but has never heard it spoken in political environments. More subtly, I can see the transition taking place in the interests and orientations of my generation, so many of whom are invested in local community, local politics, and place-based restoration and activism. In these actions, there is an acquisition of freedom from the environment and the people around us. Freedom is abundant, even if seeing this means I sacrifice some of what was traditionally regarded as freedom.

I invite you to sit with these ideas as we move forward into an election season which, no doubt, will brook further bloodshed, chaos, and heartbreak. As both major political candidates have said, democracy is on the ballot. Law and order are on the ballot. Science and reason are on the ballot. Also, I would argue, freedom is on the ballot, though you will probably not achieve the deeper, more fulfilling kind of freedom by voting for the candidate from either major party. Instead, it is something you must find in your heart, through community, through history, through the subtle, invisible forces that surround us in every moment and that watch over us even when we forget their presence. In communion with these forces, we become more powerful than we had ever dared imagine. The rote considerations of the mind disappear, such as where my next meal is going to come from, whom I am more or less powerful or impressive than, my material worth, the size of my house, car, etc. Instead, we become focused on how we can help one another, how we can serve, and through these processes, how we can become more greatly in touch with what is, a proxy for ourselves. Spiritual surrender is how a nation is formed that is indistinct from other nations, the earth itself, and God.

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