J.S. Mill on Conversation

Truth gains even more by the errors of one who, with due study and preparation, thinks for himself, than by the true opinions of those who only hold them because they do not suffer themselves to think… However unwillingly a person who has a strong opinion may admit the possibility that his opinion may be false, he ought to be moved by the consideration that however true it may be, if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth. (pgs. 40-41)

Amongst leaning towers of pizza boxes and well-marked notebooks, our reading group discussed John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty this past Tuesday evening. While there are a million plus one different ways to dissect, take up, and apply this work to the present, and swelling ranks of those who have taken up the task, I’d like to select a single gem to reflect upon. That rock is Mill’s perspective on discourse, specifically his idea that it is vitally necessary that we expose ourselves to diverse viewpoints and allow vigorous conversation– especially when it comes to our near and dear “higher things.”

While many would happily claim the label “tolerant,” it seems that fewer would invite a someone from very different religion, or a different political party (God forbid), over for dinner and then proceed to have a genuine discussion about religion and/or politics.

But I think this is exactly what needs to happen.

It is easy (not to mention comical) to bash Washington for polarizing our country, and though I’d admit that they have been doing nothing to help, it is our government after all. More importantly, it is our state, our city, our neighborhood, and our family. Mill has something to say about the stakes:

But the price paid for this sort of intellectual pacification, is the sacrifice of the entire moral courage of the human mind.

We (myself always included) shrink back from or “don’t have time for” (that favorite phrase of the modern American), engaging with those who come from different walks of life than us. In fact, I would argue that we currently suffer from a gross misunderstanding of the virtue of diversity. The only reason I can think of that diversity is currently measured by something as merely visual and uncontrollable such skin color, sex, or nationality is that these external facts can often coincide with true diversity. That is, the precious difference of perspective that we each hold as steward given a singular set of gifts, experiences, talents, and time.

The energetic beauty of diversity is in the unique irreproducibility of our unfolding stories. Believe me–this beauty, as all beauty, is mightily powerful. Call to mind those people who have changed your life for the better. There is no doubt that your souls crossed paths while traveling very different paths, but their healthy influence upon you was built conversation by conversation and shared experience by shared experience. I’d be willing to bet that over time, each of you wore down the other’s rough edges and perhaps even refined one another. What a treasure to have another mind for consultation in life’s episodes. What a strength to have another body to shoulder life’s burdens. What a joy to have another heart to encourage and rouse your feet toward new adventures!

I wonder what would happen if we looked at every fresh conversation this way. As my favorite author reminds, we bump elbows and share study spaces with beings who have been given the power to influence us for the better. Or even, as Fr. Greg Boyle movingly reminded us on Tuesday night, to “return us to ourselves.” This is the great possibility, and stagnant isolation is the the great enemy.

All I know is that I hope to be the kind of woman who greets her fellow sojourners like the potential friends that they are, always in the memory that my mouth, eyes, and ears are only outward symbols of the heart I carry within.

Parting quote:

“He is the greatest whose strength carries up the most hearts by the attraction of his own.” (Henry Ward Beecher)

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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.