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America and The Freedom Paradox

Written by son of rambow on Tuesday, September 21, 2010

n contemporary Libertarian America, freedom is a question mainly of multiplying choices, the more the better. Freedom is a question of being unshackled from any restriction. Liberation is understood as the unrestricted pursuit of any compulsion, so long as it does not harm others. From the Christian point of view, nothing could be cruder or more destructive to the life of the soul.

I think that freedom is best understood as a paradox. We human beings are actors improvising on a stage where the possibilities truly are infinite, but as one makes concrete choices, other possibilities are grayed out; they become unavailable. So the very exercise of freedom involves a quantitative reduction of possibilities, and yet it's only by the movement out of possibility into actuality that we become truly free. Our free acts require that we become the prisoner of our choices. But restriction on the horizontal dimension of our lives creates the possibility for expansion on the vertical dimension, the dimension of grace and spiritual freedom.

Let me come at it from a different direction. Take for instance Chekhov’s Three Sisters, a play that was written in 1899 about a group of interesting, decent people who had very few future possibilities, and of their desperation in being compelled to live in a small, provincial town, which was for them like a prison cell. When someone has a sense of future possibility she makes plans and she acts to realize those plans. The sisters hated their provincial existence, but could not act to change it, so they had no plan. Instead they had a fantasy about moving someday to Moscow. And so they lived in the fantasy rather than in the real world that they inhabited, which was dominated by willful people, the Tom Delays in their neighborhood, who did have plans, plans that led to the loss of the little that the sisters had. Do I need to belabor the metaphor?

Whatever the relevance of the play to our current political situation, it is on a more universal level about how fantasies substitute for actionable possibilities, and the waste of life that ensues. Our lives take on substance to the degree than we enact possibilities, and they remain insignificant and insubstantial to the degree that they wallow in dreams, no matter how noble, not acted upon. The more we act the more real we become, and the more real we become the fewer the possibilities to be something other than what we have become. The point is to act; in the end it does not matter whether it turns out well or poorly, for we are measured not by the nobility of our sentiments, but by the enactment of a particular chain of choices, and it's those choices that give the soul a spiritual density which is what makes us most deeply human.

We cannot dither in the land of possibility for fear of losing possibilities. We must chose, let the chips fall where they may, live with the consequences. That's what it means to be a free human being. Commitment phobia is the way this dithering plays out in our personal relationships. If, for instance, one is sexually attractive enough to have many partners, why limit yourself to one? This is the dilemma that the John Cusack character faces in High Fidelity. He’s a self-absorbed twenty-something who is made emotionally claustrophobic by the idea of having to commit to one partner, but then cannot understand why the women in his life always dump him.

The reason is clear. He’s a child who lacks substance. He is a weightless abstraction, a dry leaf tossed about by the wind, and the women in his life want someone who is real. They want him to come down to earth, to have some substance, to enact a concrete future that involves them, and that requires giving up on fantasies of other possibilities; it means making concrete choice that exclude other ones. It means moving out of a dream world into a real one. That’s how human beings become more deeply humanly real—by their choices and their commitments, not by living in a fantasy of perpetual possibility. The Cusack character finally figures that out by the end of the movie, although it's an open question whether he actually has the capacity to deeply care about another human being.

So does the graying out of possibilities mean we become less free because the fewer the choices, the more limited our freedom? That's where another dimension to the paradox lies, because freedom is not only measured quantitatively. It is measured also and more significantly qualitatively, in the dimension depth, a depth that is usually uncovered in the intensity of our commitments. Do we accept the limitations and the consequences of our choices, or do we long for the good old days when we could live in the dream of infinite possibility. Will we plunge into the murky mess, or will we seek featherweight flight? Limitation on the horizontal dimension, the dimension of quantitative possibility, lived in the right way leads to liberation on the vertical dimension, the dimension of spirit. It's not easy to do, and there are hardly any models of it that are celebrated in our culture.

Dorothy Day, one such model of spiritual density if there ever was one, was fond of quoting Dostoyevski's staretz Zossima--"Love in practice is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams." Her life was a living testament to that kind of practical love. That's not an idea about love that is celebrated in the culture, and yet it's a love that so many Americans live, whether they've read Dostoyevski or not. It's just in them to do it, and they do.

Dorothy Day did, and the kind of life she lived makes no sense in the classic form of Libertarianism found, for instance, in Ayn Rand's Objectivism. The two women represented completely different models concerning the development of the human freedom and the human Self. Day makes as much sense to Rand as Frodo Baggins makes to Sauron. Ayn Rand's was a view of the Self in which it was the tail being wagged by the will to power. It is a dime-a-dozen Self that is the common tool of compulsion. Dorothy Day's modeled the development of a different kind of Self, one that grows grows only when power is renounced and love fills in the space in the soul where powerlust and self-absorption once clogged it.

Another remarkable model of the spiritual liberty that I'm aware of is found in the Etty Hillesum diaries, An Interrupted Life. In it one reads about the gradual growth in interior freedom of a young Dutch Jew during WWII whose inner spirit grows brighter as the world around her grows darker and more restrictive. It’s as if she took the darkness, this void that was all around her, and made of it a kind of fuel which she was able to ignite within herself, and her burning so brightly in turn ignited those around her. She could have been swept away by the darkness in despair or rage—many were. Instead she chose to take the darkness and she transformed it into something strange and beautiful. And her example speaks more deeply, more truly, more movingly than all the theodicies I’ve ever come across.

Christians are those who have been admonished to be as guileless as doves, but also as shrewd as serpents. I've always interpreted that to mean that we need to find a way to live and operate on the horizontal level, which is ruled by the symbolic creature which slithers horizontally across the surface of the earth. But we need to do so without being ruled exclusively by the clever, but superficial logic of the serpent. This can only be done if one finds a way to be open to the vertical, the dimension of height and depth, the dimension that reaches to the heavens and penetrates to the depths, which, again, is the dimension of grace and spiritual freedom.

Some people, the people who feel most at home in the world in which the superficial horizontal pursuits defined by sex, power, and money are the primary motivators, are more serpentine; others, usually the kindly, warmhearted, decent folk whom, in my more sanguine moments (I do have them) I believe are the real soul of America, (as many living in red states as in blue) are more dovelike. But their guilelessness is an impediment if so one-sided it leads them to trust those who are not worthy of their trust. They must cling to the guilelessness that is at the heart of their decency, but they must also wake up and use their faculty for shrewdness in order to protect themselves from the predations of the serpentine who have no compunction about exploiting them by using their guilelessness against them.

If Christians were told only to be guileless, then I suppose they should just meekly suffer whatever the guile-ful impose on them, but Christians are admonished to be bi-lingual, to be fluent in both serpent-think and dove-think. And to me that means that Christians, if they are doing their job, always, always have a subversive influence in any part of the world that is dominated by serpent-think--including all too often the churches. And insofar as Christians (and all those who are genuinely responsive to the influence of grace in their lives) succeed in bringing the vertical into their actions in the domain of serpent-think, they have a subversive effect.

Christianity is fundamentally a subversive spiritual impulse. And Redemption is the ongoing story of liberation, which is the gradual subversion from within of the world ruled according to the logic of the serpent. Anybody who doesn't get that, in my view, doesn't get what Christianity really is. [source]

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