For a while I stopped believing that freedom existed. As soon as you attain the thing that you might call freedom, you immediately become entrapped by something new. I longed to be an independent adult when I was a child. I did not imagine that the price I would pay was the unutterable tedium of pricing broadband providers. I’ve had bosses who have made me long for freedom due to their ineptitude and unfairness. On the other hand, I’ve learned that the grass can be greener when I’ve found myself in charge of a project and felt responsibility weighing on me. Suddenly being someone’s under-appreciated minion becomes attractive again. At least I got to sleep at night.
I began to believe there was no such thing as freedom and that we are perpetually doomed to be out of control of our own lives. In physics class I learned that energy cannot be created or destroyed, but only moves from state to state. I wondered if the same was true of entrapment. We feel oppressed and crushed by a set of expectations or circumstances and then a molecular shift happens and we find ourselves subject to a different set of expectations and circumstances. Instead of freedom we simply have a more favourable entrapment.
The freedom I believed in could not be. I thought freedom was a state of limitlessness. It meant nothing and nobody had the power to influence or affect you without your permission. We learned to think this way during the Enlightenment when we officially took God out of the centre of the universe and put ourselves there instead. It’s all about me, don’t tell me what to think. At university I felt this influence a lot as we congratulated ourselves on our liberal dialogue about self and “other”. We laughed at our ancestors who had “othered” blacks, women, gays and the poor and we patted each other on the back for our enlightened view of the equality and independence of humanity (conveniently forgetting that our being at university made us simultaneously the demographic most empowered to work for justice and at the same time the least likely to ever do anything about it). The point is, in most classes I was being taught to understand that the “self” had no right to tell the “other” who or what they were. We are free beings, and we determine our own lives as we float unconnected in a meaningless universe. Once you understand that, you may choose to have relationships with others in order to pass your meaningless life more pleasantly.
However, in one class in my final year I learned that I had simply gotten it wrong about freedom; it’s not that freedom doesn’t exist, I just didn’t know what it was. I had to write a paper about the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer for one class. While he is probably best known for his assassination attempt on Hitler, he really was quite a phenomenal theologian. On this subject, in Creation and Fall (1932) he wrote, “Because [Christ] does not retain his freedom for himself the concept of freedom only exists for us as ‘being free for’.” What this means is that freedom is not something to gain for ourselves, freedom exists to benefit others. Bonhoeffer also argued that the Self-Other relationship I had been learning about is a falsity. We are what he called “ethical boundaries” to each other. Instead of being unconnected to and independent of each other, we are the boundaries and limits to each other. Freedom happens when you are free for God and for others. It’s when you try to be free by yourself that you become trapped; you are striving for the impossible.
For you were called to freedom brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. Galatians 5:13
Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honour everyone, love the brotherhood, fear God, honour the emperor. 1 Peter 2:16-17
A metaphor to finish. Imagine, if you will, a ballet dancer. Or Brian O’Driscoll. Someone with beautiful feet. If their feet were shackled together they would not be free. However, on being set free they will use their freedom to follow learned movements. Their steps are planned. Every footfall is the result and the reward of hours of disciplined training. When a dancer performs some choreographed piece or when a sportsman executes a rehearsed set-play we don’t think of them as trapped. Nor do we think of them as limitless and undirected. They use their freedom for something. They are beautifully free in conformity with a greater reality – a dance, a game that cannot be denied. The beauty is drawn out by the direction of a master. Who is yours?