The Paradox of Freedom

I’ve been personally wrestling with the proper conceptualization of freedom for some time now (don’t worry…I have friends and a job too), ever since becoming uncomfortably aware that I enjoy a much greater degree of freedom (freedom from, as I’ll explain) than many of my friends around the world. Three recent experiences have spurred this present public-journal entry: attending World Youth Day in Poland on pilgrimage, reading Pope John Paul II’s inspired book, Love and Responsibility, and spending these last two weekends listening-in on meaningful conversations about “Markets & Morality” and “Economics & the Pursuit of Happiness” at respective conferences. May you enjoy the haphazard thoughts to follow 🙂


There is a short tale that I was once told, regarding a certain historic encounter:

Years ago, when Pope John Paul II landed in the United States for his visit, President Reagan greeted him with a hearty, “Welcome to the land of the free!” The Pope then smiled and spoke with his usual wise and glimmering eyes, “Free, yes. But free for what?”

For what? Herein lies the paradox of this self-evident right which we rightly hold so dear, precious almost as life itself. Here, I think, is why we from the land of the free are surprised when we meet those who do not have as much explicit freedom in their lives and yet mysteriously still radiate dignity, strength, and even happiness. Here is why, although we currently enjoy greater freedom than ever before in the history of humanity, we still suffer at the hands of things like the paradox of choice.

Our understanding of freedom–as a broader nation but primarily in our intimate lives–is not whole.

The protection of freedom that we are blessed by cannot be the telos, end in and of itself, since it only can protect our pursuit of happiness, not guarantee it. This is necessary on a state level, but I think that we forgot the other half of the equation. We commit to protect one anothers’ freedom through our governments, so that we can then come home and freely choose to sacrifice that very freedom in our work, school, and play. In other words, I don’t think we experience the fullness of freedom until we use our freedom from unjust restriction as freedom for an end that is true, good, and beautiful. Paradoxically, echoing the secret of Mother Teresa, I’ve found the greatest happiness and freedom in giving it up to fulfill my responsibilities as a daughter, sister, and friend. Given our abundance of choices, we must be even more careful that our daily movements are taking us closer to the person we want to become and not further.

We must remember that freedom from is always completed by freedom for.

Freedom From

In the framework of the state, we encounter freedom as freedom from. From the outset, I want to be clear that I am in no way disparaging the freedom that we enjoy in the United States. In fact, I want to echo the words in an excellent article by our very own Nebraskan Senator Sasse, as he clearly articulates what freedom looks like in the political and economic lens:

The American Founders saw that denying people their freedom is fundamentally wrong because it doesn’t comport with the dignity of people who are created in the image of God. People have been endowed with certain inalienable rights. God gives us those rights; government does not.

Government is merely a tool. It provides a framework for ordered liberty so that free people can live fully flowering lives.

Freedom For

In the sacred space of the home and heart, freedom is perfected as the freedom for. What makes freedom so immensely precious is our power to relinquish our personal freedom in the service of a greater good. We sense this instinctively, for example, when we are moved to deep admiration for those who give up their comfortable lives to fight for our country, or even as we see married couples sacrifice their individual independence for the good of their family. I have found, that through a passage in Love and Responsibility, St. John Paul the Great clarifies this mysterious and paradoxical relationship:

Freedom exists for the sake of love. If freedom is not used, is not

taken advantage of by love, it becomes a negative thing and

gives human beings a feeling of emptiness and unfulfillment.

Love commits freedom and imbues it with that to which

the will is naturally attracted — goodness. (p. 135)

Which is Greater?

Who’s to say? I certainly have not seen enough depth and breadth of life to even pretend a wise response, but I can relay the wisdom of a man who was challenged to live out his philosophy, rather than comfortably preach it in a lecture hall his entire life. That man is Viktor Frankl, and the repository of his insight is found in his book  Man’s Search for Meaning. Through his experience in the concentration camps, Frankl made the courageous challenge to his fellow prisoners and now to his future generations of readers (a challenge which he lived up to):

We who lived, in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

Though our freedom from may be taken away by others, our freedom for can never be completely extinguished. Freedom for, since it is not only the crown of freedom from but in fact can exist independently, is the greater, the fuller, the more perfecting. And to bring it full circle, lest we forgot it all too quickly (I know I do), the wisdom of St. John Paul II the Great:

 Man longs for love more than for freedom — freedom is the

means and love the end. (p. 136)

Love is the end? Just think about this one. In both our frivolous and fundamental pursuits of happiness, when are you the truly happiest? When you focus on doing what you want every day, or when you focus on loving others and letting them love you?* For me, the answer is self-evident.

 

*Even apart from religious understanding– everything that the social sciences can measure points to this fact as well. I’d highly suggest a follow-up video about the longest study on human happiness.

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2 thoughts on “The Paradox of Freedom

  1. “Here is why, although we currently enjoy greater freedom than ever before in the history of humanity, we still suffer at the hands of things like the paradox of choice.”

    Yes, and amen. I love your distinction between for and from. Keep writing truth into this world!

    Like

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