Last week, we spoke of imagination as a gateway to freedom. Imagination does so by opening up alternatives, new possibilities, in how we think and feel, in our attitudes and actions, our way of life. Two themes come from this reflection: one is the need for what spiritual writer, Wayne Muller, calls “sabbath time.” The other is the need to expand our understanding of freedom. Today, we will mention briefly the notion of sabbath time and then look at the topic of freedom.
For Muller, sabbath time is a time free from work and other responsibilities, where we can just enjoy being alive. “In Sabbath time,” he writes, “we are valued not for what we have done or accomplished, but simply because we have received the gentle blessing of being miraculously alive.” It is a time we spend on what is good for its own sake, and not just a means to something else. “Sabbath, “ he writes, “is more than the absence of work; it is not just a day off, when we catch up on television or errands. It is the presence of something that arises when we consecrate a period of time to listen to what is most deeply beautiful, nourishing, or true. It is time consecrated with our attention, our mindfulness, honouring those quiet forces of grace or spirit that sustain and heal us.”
One common view of freedom, yet mistaken, I believe, is to see freedom as the absence of any commitment and to see others as an obstacle to our freedom. A similar view sees freedom as the ability to do what we feel like as long as we don’t hurt anyone.
Yet what we feel like on the surface might differ considerably from what we truly want from our inmost core. What we feel like on the surface might arise from the latest commercial we have seen on television–such a getting a new cell phone–or the slightest whim that comes into our mind. On a deeper level, the script of what we wish for–such as financial success rather than friendship–may arise from the conditioning of our society. Or it may spring from our need to belong which Gabor Maté says may obscure our deeper need for authenticity.
I like to say that our freedom is as wide as our vision and as deep as our understanding. It may take a long time to discover our deepest longing. I may be hidden beneath the clutter of many strands of conditioning. Psychologist Erich Fromm has written that much of our activity is not really free but driven by compulsion or fear. To be free requires a process of coming to an awareness of the script that we are actually following in our life. This inherited script may even go against our own deepest longing. Until we become aware of that script, we cannot either affirm, modify or change it.
I remember a conversation years ago with a man who had come to the college to teach after serving in a business capacity for a long time. It was a small college where faculty from every discipline met in the lunch room or common room. This man enjoyed being there immensely, and one day, with a tone of sadness, he said to me, “I’ve missed a lot.”
To be in touch with, understand, and be a t home with our inmost self, what Thomas Merton calls our “true self,” requires times of solitude and silence, as well as open conversation with trustworthy friends. We are also aided by exposure to literature, music, painting and other arts. These can put us in touch with our inner self and help to name our deepest experiences.
Writer and activist, Edwina Gately, says that out of darkness and silence she came to see her life work to be with the women of the streets of Chicago. Over time, as a rapport of trust developed, they began to share bits of their life stories with her. Almost all of them had been victims of some form of childhood violence. The positive counterpart is expressed by the monk, Basic Pennington: “If a child always received such totally gratuitous, totally affirming love, the child would grow up to be one of the most beautiful persons this world has known.”
In other words, the intelligent and genuine caring of others enhances, and even to some degree, makes possible our freedom. To the extent that we are assisted in our struggle towards a deep sense of our own worth, we become freer persons. We are gradually freed from being driven to approach others only as needs or threats, rather than as who they and we truly are. We become freed as well from the burden of trying to prove or earn a worth that we do not fee.
The example of Edwina Gately also brings out that the caring that enhances freedom may involve listening from the heart to the stories of others. I recall the words of writer, John Shea, who says that any sorrow can be borne provided a story can be told about it. And, it should be added, provided there is a caring listener to that story.
What these examples suggest is that our freedom is enabled and developed by the caring of others, expressed often in listening. They also suggest that freedom is itself expressed, not in opposition to others, but in sharing with them. Freedom is at least in some degree fulfilled in sharing our stories and our story with others, in sharing who we are. In this perspective, freedom is the capacity, not to refuse ourselves, but to give ourselves. If understanding can be viewed as the gathering of ourselves into the hands of our awareness, then freedom can be regarded as the gift of our gathered self.
A further thought, noted by theologian Karl Rahner, is that the more we put our whole selves into a decision, the more we are shaped by that commitment, the less reversible it is. While we do shape ourselves by individual choices, our freedom is more fundamentally concerned with the kind of person we become and the direction we give to our lives, Our underlying freedom is less about what we do and more about who we are.
At the same time, we do not become the person we are in isolation, but only in relation to others and the world in which we live. Sam Keen expresses it in these words. “Everyone has a fascinating story to tell, an autobiographical myth. And when we tell our stories to one another, we, at one and the same time, find the meaning of our lives and are healed from our isolation and loneliness. Strange as it may seem, self-knowledge begins with self-revelation. We don’t know who we are until we hear ourselves speaking the drama of our lives to someone we trust to listen with an open mind and heart.”
We may recall finally the importance of discovering what we have called a true story–a true image of who we are and a worthwhile script to follow in living out our life. We need a story or script that is not superficial, naive, warped or destructive, but one that takes into account all our spiritual richness and complexity and depth, as well as our inner wounds and failures We need a vision of that enables and challenges us to celebrate our joys, to survive our sorrows, to share our lives, and to build our world.
May you become more and more aware of who you truly are and of the sacred worth of who you are., And may you find in friendship and in social outreach meaningful ways to share who you are.
Norman King, October 24, 2022