This is the second in a series of short reflections on the nature of freedom. To know how to educate our children for freedom, we need to understand rightly what freedom is (and what it is not)
In the first post, I argued that freedom is not a state of limitlessness, but about thriving within limits that are fitting to our essential form and to our purpose. Timothy Keller, a pastor and best-selling author, once said in a sermon on freedom: “Freedom is not living with the absence of constraints, but living within the right constraints.” Finding the right constraints requires an understanding of human nature and purpose.
This definition implies, though, that there are wrong constraints; that is constraints that oppose freedom. These are forces that prevent us from realizing our purpose and are contrary to our flourishing. Consider, for instance, the nature of addiction. Addictions may begin with people doing what they want. There is a temporarily thrill of feeling free to perhaps do something new that was forbidden, like a teenager drinking alcohol for the first time with his peers in secret. Eventually, though, the desire grows in power and begins to the control the person. Now there is a drive to be satiated, a need that did not exist before for something that really isn’t needed. And the object of desire becomes something that the person has to have. Instead of controlling the desire for alcohol, the desire controls the person, leading to destructive consequences, for ourselves and for others. An addicted, impulsive person is not free, but is a slave to his wants.
A truly free person, on the other hand, can manage his wants in the pursuit of the fulfillment of a purpose. In other words, freedom is different from acting spontaneously on impulse. As one theologian put it, “Freedom is not doing whatever comes into your mind; it is doing whatever you have in your mind, that is doing what you set out to do.”
We confuse spontaneity with freedom, believing that freedom is about acting in some natural, unscripted way. For example, Donald Trump’s supporters in the Republican primary admire his “authenticity” because he says whatever comes to his mind, and is not constrained by the normal rules of political discourse. Deliberation and submission to order in one’s speech and conduct is viewed as insincere.
Freedom in terms pursuing and fulfilling a purpose (“doing what you set out to do”) requires thoughtfulness and respect for something bigger than oneself. Consider the kind of improvisation characteristic of live jazz performances. An expert jazz musician reacts quickly and unpredictably to the musical gestures of his fellow musicians, but not in an arbitrary way. To improve effectively requires a deep knowledge of and respect for the order of the music, attentiveness to what the other musicians are doing so that one’s actions cohere with the whole, and a consideration for the audience in the making of pleasing music.
Consider, finally, how we relate to and are affected by our smart phones. I find myself regularly distracted by my phone, even when it is not buzzing or ringing (but especially when it is). In the middle of doing something productive, I will pull out my phone for no specific reason except just to satisfy a need to be distracted. The phone may give me a sense of power and freedom since I can access so much information through it, but I often do not use it to fulfill something I have purposed to do. Instead, it feels like it is directing me. This is not freedom.
Please share your insights into what freedom is (and what it is not).