Freedom as Gathering and Gift of Self

In the Greek myth of King Oedipus, as portrayed in the play by Sophocles, there is a moment when a plague ravages the city. Oedipus vows to discover the cause and exile the person responsible. Tiresias, the blind seer, after much prodding, reluctantly says to Oedipus, “You are the man.” Oedipus gradually discovers the truth of this statement and exiles himself.

Among the many insights of this play, there is the hint that what we look for outside of ourselves, turns out to be within ourselves. The real exile is from ourselves. In a later play, Oedipus affirms that the only response to the errors and sorrows of life is a profound love. What seems to be involved here is, at first, a gradual process of self-discovery, that invariably carries some degree of pain. The best response to this unveiling is seen as a love that reaches beyond oneself.

Perhaps this ancient story helps us to understand freedom as the gathering and gift of self. We have spoken of how our personal story is shaped by many influences, how we need to uncover the script we are actually following. We then need to try to situate our own story within a more universal story, one that tells of the unfolding of our own worth and that of all that is. This is, in effect, the story of our gradually becoming free and finding the fulfillment of our freedom in the gift of our sacred self to something beyond that self.

A common view of freedom, repeated to me over many years of teaching, is the ability to do what we feel like provided we don’t hurt anyone. The difficulty with this approach is that, first of all, it fails to distinguish between what we feel like on the surface and what we really want. The first is obvious: if we feel hungry we like to eat, if we feel tired, we wish to rest, and so on. But what we want from our inmost core takes years to discover. It is a slow and often arduous process to uncover who we are and what we truly want to live for. We move beyond the scripts imposed upon us by family, society, or culture, to this deeper awareness only through times of solitude and with the help of intelligently caring others. And, of course, the naming of experience is helped by images and stories and other art forms. As spiritual writer Thomas Merton once expressed it, we may find that we have climbed the ladder but that it was against the wrong wall.

The second difficulty with this common approach is that it sees our freedom only in opposition to and constrained by others. It looks at life in a context of rivalry, of “us” and “them,” where others are viewed primarily as limitations and even enemies. It fails to recognize that the support and challenge of others is essential to our freedom; that the worth of others implies responsibility to them; that freedom is situated within a relational, communal, and social context. In brief, can we be free without friends?

Theologian Gregory Baum states simply: “love … gives freedom.” “Only as we are loved by others, only as we share in community, do we come to accept ourselves. We discover our worth as persons through the love of others and our share in the life of the community. … The love and care [persons] receive from others create the strength in them … to come to greater self-knowledge, to assume wider responsibility for themselves, and thus to become more fully human.” (A counterpart of this view is that hatred negates freedom; it is a prison.)

In other words, we do not start off free, but we become free. The process of becoming free requires a progressively deepening understanding of self, of our deepest needs, longings, and hopes. It also requires an ever expanding vison of life. Our freedom is as deep as our understanding and as wide as our vision. It also requires what we might call a progressive inner wholeness, a harmonization and reconciliation of the complexity and conflicts within ourselves.

A good example is the Morley Callaghan story, All the Years of Her Life. A young man is rescued by his mother from the consequences of his petty theft at the drugstore where he works. As they arrive home and she sits down with a cup of tea, he notices at last her fragility and age, and a sense of personal responsibility for his own life finally dawns on him. The story concludes: “He watched his mother and he never spoke, but at that moment his youth seemed to be over …It seemed to him that this was the first time he had ever looked upon his mother.”

In another story, The Little Business Man, Callaghan tells of a 12- year-old boy who goes to live with his aunt and uncle, after the death of his parents. His uncle is totally pragmatic and Luke turns for companionship to an old dog. When the uncle realizes that the dog is now half blind, he decides that the dog is “useless” and that it is time to get rid of him. The boy, Luke, rescues the dog and makes a “practical” arrangement to keep the dog. The story ends with Luke’s realization: “He vowed to himself fervently that he would always have some money on hand, no matter what became of him, so that he would be able to protect all that was truly valuable, from the practical people in the world.”

Becoming a free person, then, involves a deeper self awareness, including a recognition of diverse influences, inner conflicts, and what has been called our shadow side. It also requires the development of a sense of self-worth. Otherwise there is a tendency to deny difficulties within ourselves and project then on to others. There can also be near endless futile attempts to prove a worth that a person never really believes. It can result in a life that is driven rather than unfolds from within, that seeks scapegoats for its unhappiness, and ferments with unfaced fear and hostility. The counterpart is a sense of worth that acknowledges that we share all the negative emotions, that we experience limitations, failures, and even betrayals. But these to not do not take away the underlying sacredness and are compatible, with growth to maturity, loving relationships, a sense of compassion, and a real joy in living.

We mentioned before how a young child will ask, “Where did I come from?” We said that the child is not asking for a biology lesson, but a story in which he or she is the main character and welcomed into the family or care-giving group. The child is really asking–as we do throughout our lives: “Am I important and do I belong.” This, I believe, is our underlying human quest: both to have a sense of our own worth and to find a home, a place to belong, a place to share and give ourselves. It seems that we cannot become free without a sense of our sacred worth. Yet, along with that sense, there is a profound yearning to take that valuable self and give it to something or someone beyond ourselves.

This again is an understanding of freedom ( more accurately of becoming free), as the gathering of ourselves into our hands in order to give ourselves to what is worth the gift of our whole self from the heart. In this understanding, freedom is not the avoidance of decision or commitment. It is rather the possibility of commitment, of gift of self to what is worthy of that gift. In this sense, freedom is expressed and fulfilled not in refusal, but in the very gift of one’s self.

This journey, in awakening solitude, in trusting friendship, and in social responsibility, would seem then to be the path of freedom. May you come more and more to understand and name all that is within you, both darkness and light; may you ever deepen your sense of your sacred worth; and may you offer that valuable self to what is truly worthwhile.

Norman King, February 27, 2022