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What is freedom?

On this July 4th weekend, amidst the barbecues and fireworks, I found myself pondering the idea of freedom.  I thought about what it means to truly experience freedom, and how some people, even in this free country, have no freedom at all.  So what does the word really mean?  Well, like most things, freedom has three primary components:  the physical, the mental/emotional, and the spiritual.  I’ll start with the physical.

The physical aspect of freedom involves our surroundings—where  we live matters.   For some, the picture of freedom features wide, open spaces, abundant nature, lots of elbow room—a farm, perhaps.  For others, the same version of freedom is a prison of isolation and hard labor.  For city people, freedom is the ability to press an elevator button and stroll outside into the melee, the diverse culture of museums, theater, and impromptu music.  In an ideal world, we would all have the freedom to live where we want to live. But what if, through marriage, economics, old age or illness, we found ourselves in circumstances that oppose our fundamental picture of freedom?  Could we survive?  Could we thrive?

That’s where the mental/emotional component kicks in.  We’ve all heard the adage, Bloom where you’re planted. That’s easier said than done, and sometimes it takes a while.  I met my husband at a business meeting sponsored by a mutual client.  At the time, he lived on a horse farm in Virginia; I, in a Chicago townhouse.  After years of flying back and forth, and with the addition of a child, my husband’s dream prevailed, and we moved to the farm.  The reason he prevailed is that I was more flexible and adaptable.  Why?  Because my idea of freedom was more mental than physical. Even so, it wasn’t all that easy to go from the exorbitant culture and fun of Chicago to the silence and isolation of a Virginia farm.

It took me about two years to grow roots in that Virginia soil.  Part of the process was getting used to the rural southern culture, which at that time contained biases that I did not share.  I had to stick with it, banish all judgment, and seek the profound goodness that I knew was there.  I grew to love the people.  Seven years later when we moved to the Northeast for my husband’ next job, I was extremely sad to leave the farm.  Even now, twenty years later, I dream of the undulating 35-mile view of pasture, horses, and four-board fencing from our bedroom window.  Sigh!

Not everyone can adapt, I know, because I see it all around me.  I see it in people who never left home, in spite of opportunities.  This, I think, is mostly due to a fear of the unknown, of stepping out of the comfort zone.  And even in a philosophically free world, fear can bind any of us.  Just ask the ill and the elderly, and those who are simply frustrated by finance and cannot get to where they always intended to go.  Frustration is hard to put aside; it can kill our motivation, our forward movement.

Dr. Viktor Frankl  (1905-1997) did a phenomenal job of investigating (first hand, sadly) the ultimate frustration and devastation of physical and mental/emotional confinement in the midst of the WWII concentration camps.  The extreme examples of survival (or not), of flexibility and adaptability (or despair) that he describes, provide the key to human motivation.  Why did some persist and others desist?  (For the answers, read: Man’s Search for Meaning, a life-changing book.)

Viktor Frankl would probably agree with Thomas Merton (1915-1968), a (mostly) cloistered monk—that the answer to the question of true survival is based on the third component of freedom:  the spiritual component.  Thomas Merton led a licentious, well-traveled, intellectual and cosmopolitan life prior to his calling.  By all accounts, he should have done a U-turn when he arrived at the cloistered cell of the Trappist monastery in Kentucky.  He should have been panicked at the thought of his new commitment to a life of isolation, challenging labor, and complete silence.  In a cell!  Instead, he called it “these four walls of my new freedom…”   He viewed this elective confinement as the opportunity of a lifetime, a chance to lift the planet up in a constant stream of contemplative prayer and sacrifice. The chance to remove himself from all that was temporal, temporary and false, and replace it with all that was eternal and true.

On the surface, then, I think it’s fair to say that true freedom must contain an element of choice.  I didn’t necessarily want to move to that Virginia farm, but I made the choice to move there.  Thomas Merton was not well-versed in the experience of isolation and hard labor; he made that choice based on his commitment to meditative prayer.  But Viktor Frankl and his fellow prisoners had no such choice.  So we have the most to learn from them.  How did anyone in those camps stay alive in any and every sense?!  And yet, unimaginably (and not without consequence) many did.

Of course, there are other forms of confinement—to a wheel chair, to blindness or deafness, to autism, to a chronic battle against cancer, mental illness or Alzheimer’s, to name a few.  Any loss of control feels a lot like forced captivity.  Even in this wonderful, free country, there are so many personal struggles for physical and mental freedom.  In the end, the only aspect of freedom that cannot be removed is the spiritual aspect.  And by that I do not mean religious, though (as I’ve said in other blogs), religion can get you there.

I read an article in the paper many years ago in which the author decided to “try” meditation in a why not? mood.  After about one week he said he could not believe that he’d waited so long—that every human being didn’t run to the meditation corner every day. Within his quiet seeking he said he was shockingly and unexpectedly “ambushed by love.”  Though I’ve long forgotten the author’s name (sorry!), I have never forgotten his description—ambushed by love!  Meditation or contemplative prayer is the spiritual means for people of any religion or culture to directly experience true freedom from all confinement and hardship.  The bodiless, mindless freedom of our common Source.  Anywhere. Even behind bars.  But like most things, it has to be experienced. If you don’t already meditate, you might want to try it one day.  It will give you wings.

Happy Independence Day!

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