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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Modern Day Virtues

Each day, as we enter the classroom, or the world, we carry the high—even the holy—calling of those given voice (Speaking for Sub-creation)

Whenever asked to speak before a group (though initially tempted to play sick and hide under the covers), this goof does her best to rise to the challenge. It’s quite a change from who I used to be two years ago, but as the above quotation exhorts, I’ve realized that there are things so important and so exciting that they simply must be said. Who am I not to say them?

Thus, the following passage contains the highlights of a speech that I gave on Tuesday night for a TFAS awards ceremony. There are blatant hurdles when it comes to translating speech into prose, but I think that these thoughts (largely inspired by this TED talk by David Brooks) merit being repeated. If nothing else, I hope you get a little chuckle from my personal stage cues!

P.S. A glimpse into my mind: the italicized and underlined portions are the words I especially wanted to emphasize– even linger on– for a bit.

Good evening everyone! First, I have a little confession… I had originally written up another speech for this, but after a few good conversations these last few days and reflecting on the mission of “The Fund for American Studies”, I’m convinced that this new topic is far more important and interesting.

My new topic is virtue. 

I know that if you asked each student here what one word could best embody their summer with TFAS, most would respond with something along the lines of “incredible amounts of learning” or “ great experience.” So I began to reflect on the questions:

What are the kinds of things that we’ve learned through our experience with TFAS?  And even more fundamentally, why are we learning them, or, what is the purpose of learning?

To begin, I believe that the purpose of learning is to develop virtue.  Virtue is a term that has narrowed in meaning over the years, but I want to employ it in the original fullness, coming from the Latin word for excellence or even courage. Simply put, a virtuous person is living their life in an excellent way.

Now I also believe that there are two kinds of virtue– two skill sets required in us for living excellently. Perhaps you are familiar with the way that David Brooks, the New York Times columnist and author of The Road to Character, explains this with great clarity as he labels them the “resume virtues” and the “eulogy virtues.” In life, we find that certain virtues are helpful if we want to have more or achieve more in our career. An example of this is the principal virtue of the state, namely, justice. But some virtues are oriented towards being more or even giving more. A good example of this is mercy, the chief virtue of the family.

So, I’ve realized that what makes the learning that goes on through TFAS uniquely great is that it develops leaders who will bear the fruits of both the resume and the eulogy virtues.  The classes, internships, events, and professional mentors are great tools for shaping us into very capable and driven individuals. TFAS does this, and it does this exceptionally well. The proof is sitting right next to you– I look around the room and feel humbled and inspired by the accomplished people before me.

But tonight, I want to especially remind us of the stories that are ever unfolding underneath and in between the coffees, speeches, free food, and exchange of business cards. For we feel most alive, most human, and even most ourselves when we focus on our relationship with others and practice the eulogy virtues. The stories about TFAS that I will be telling around my dinner table one day are these: the cheerful sing-along songs and hair help each morning from my roommates, finding favorite authors in common with unlikely friends, and that one afternoon of hiking on the Billy Goat Trail that culminated with an “I’ll do it if you do it,” in reference to jumping into the Potomac River.

Each day of this summer, we were given vast opportunities to move one step closer to the career we want to have one day, but we were also surrounded by people whose quiet example encouraged us to grow into the virtuous man or woman we want to become one day.

Just one last thing.

As some of you know, I live and breathe in quotes, so I’d like to quickly end with some words from the old English journalist G.K. Chesterton. I invite you to listen carefully, because I think that these words are the key to practicing both sets of virtues. Chesterton writes:

“I would maintain that thanks is the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”

So, thank you, TFAS, for helping us to develop both the resume and eulogy virtues. Thank you to those professors like Dr. Bradley and the others at George Mason who put the true good of their students first, thank you to the administration and leadership of TFAS (a special shout out to my leaders Mr. Colin Parks and Kate) who promote the TFAS vision most powerfully by their example, and lastly, thank you to all of my peers, my dear friends whom I have met here.  Your virtuous example and friendship above all has filled me with gratitude, happiness, and especially — wonder.

It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you forget yourself.