What is freedom? We tend to define freedom as the removal of any restrictions in order to pursue our inclinations, our inner self - that necessary ingredient for authenticity and self-fulfillment. New Ager, Shakti Gawain, author of Creative Visualizations, would agree:
· "When we consistently suppress and distrust our intuitive knowingness, looking instead for external authority, validation, and the approval of others, we give our personal power away…Every time you don’t trust yourself and don’t follow your inner truth, you decreased your aliveness and your body will reflect this with a loss of vitality, numbness, pain, and eventually physical disease."
Truly, dependency upon others and their opinions hands us a life of bondage. Freedom must be made of a different material. Gawain suggests that this is the self, the source of trust, life and vitality.
Is the self the source of freedom or of bondage? Let me offer a very strange sounding answer. Freedom is living in harmony with reality. It’s like kayaking down a swift river and not against it. It is conforming to the ebbs and flow of the river. It is recognizing the dangers and skillfully avoiding them, as we go with the flow.
When we resist the flow, we foolishly ignore the laws of the river. It’s like ignoring the threat of gravity, as we walk too close to the edge of a precipice.
As strange as it sounds, freedom is conformity to certain laws that can harm us if we violate them. Ironically, we maximize our freedom by staying within our proper confines, like the goldfish in his bowl. If he jumps out to seek more freedom, she will find she has less, as he squirms helplessly on the ground.
We need limits - certain rules or laws. Without them, it is like playing chess where “anything goes.” This might sound like perfect freedom – you can move the pieces wherever and whenever you want – but such a game will very quickly become boring. Instead, it is the rules or limitations that give meaning to the game.
We cannot do without limits. Without the limitations of gravity, we cannot dance. However, according to Gawain, freedom is a matter casting aside all of the rules and laws. Her only reality is our “inner truth” and desires. While these also constitute reality, they aren’t the only reality.
Reality is greater than the self. We weren’t made for a solipsistic existence. We were made for relationship, however messy this might sometimes become. We were made for give and take, to learn the reality of the other and to enter into it.
This requires understanding. Any relationship requires understanding certain human laws. Even keeping a goldfish requires us to understand the needs of the goldfish.
What represents the greatest threat to freedom? Internal bondage! As a college student, I found Gawain’s ideas appealing. I quickly adopted nihilism (a form of moral relativism – the denial of any “external authority”) as my guiding light. I initially felt the thrill of liberation. I was no longer bound by the ideas and opinions of others. I was free to find my own path and pleasures.
However, I found that bondage wasn’t so much a matter of external pressures and expectations, but rather, internal ones. After I had thrown off my external shackles, I was left with the ball and chain of my own inner requirements!
The self, which was supposed to liberate me, proved to be a vicious jail-keeper. My own standards – Gawain’s “inner truth” - were more demanding and unforgiving that even society’s standards. I was a prisoner to these requirements, and they tightly bound me with guilt and shame when I failed them. What had promised liberation had enslaved me further.
The filmmaker, Martin Scorsese similarly confessed:
- Some people say it's just a Catholic guilt, that's all. But it's still guilt. I don't mean guilt from being late for Mass or for having sexual thoughts. No, I'm talking about guilt that comes from just being alive.
Guilt is a ubiquitous freedom slayer. It charges that there is something terribly the matter with us. Consequently, we find ourselves coerced to obsessively defend ourselves against its charge. We bath ourselves in denials, rationalizations, and even accomplishments, hoping that these will wash away the indictment, but they never do, no matter how good we act. Instead of freedom, we are embroiled in obsessive inner struggles.
Meanwhile, the Bible lays out a very different path to freedom, not through the “inner self” but through another - a Man who died to make us free:
- If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:8-9)