Things That Feel Like Freedom

Freedom, part 2

When my Journey Group talked about our experiences of freedom, we mentioned a number of features that contribute to this feeling.

A new way of seeing things sometimes feels like freedom (like seeing a certain hypothetical computer and the world as the same thing).

Sometimes it feels free to be freed from some chore or responsibility. I have a memory of the last day of school at the end of fifth or sixth grade, making our way up the hall and out of the building on that last day. There was supposed to be no running in the hall, but our energy was uncontainable and in the last minutes of the school year, the teachers were not inclined to try to contain it – and so we ran up that hall and we cheered and yelled as we ran toward the door. That was an experience of freedom.

On the other hand, sometimes stepping into new responsibilities was freeing. Remember when you were hired for your first really significant job? Or getting married. Or maybe the first time you moved to a new house. It felt exhilarating, and you were free at last of the life that you had had up until then. A few years on down the road, the same set of responsibilities that once were liberating might now be stultifying.

Mindful presence is a path to freedom. Directing attention to just what is there, without reactivity or distraction, liberates us from the tyranny of our reactivity – and our endless distractability, being continuously in thrall to the next shiny object. Mindfulness breaks the grip of automatic thinking – those unconscious habits of thought – and lets us see the moment more for what it is and less for only those features that relate to our own attachments. We can then engage that moment in more fresh and creative ways.

Sometimes freedom comes from being part of a larger thing that gives purpose and meaning to life – contributing to the goals of an institution. A life without purpose might be one in which you could do whatever you wanted, but if nothing you do matters – or if it feels like it doesn’t matter -- then that’s not really what liberation looks like.

But freedom also comes, sometimes, from creating your own projects that are yours alone, even if there is no market for them. The unappreciated artist or writer engaged in the deep task of self-creation through her work is embodying freedom – accountable to an inner call to become something unique rather than to make something useful to others. In this context, I think of something Richard Rorty wrote.

Let me first share a word about the meaning Richard Rorty had in my life. I discovered his work as a grad student at Baylor, and I went from there to study with him at the University of Virginia. He was my model and mentor and primary professor. When he died he 2007, I hadn’t seen him for 15 years, but the news still hit me like a body blow. As his student, I read all his books and his voluminous papers. And as my actual father had started me thinking about freedom, Rorty, too, helped me think about the subject.

In a 1989 essay, he drew a distinction between the kind of education that high schools are for and the very different function of colleges. High schools, he said, need to, and rightly should, focus on what students should know by graduation. But the question, “What should they learn in college?” had better go unasked. Such a question, Rorty explained, suggests
“that college faculties are instrumentalities that can be ordered to a purpose. The temptation to suggest this comes over administrators occasionally, as does the feeling that higher education is too important to be left to the professors. From an administrative point of view, the professors often seem self-indulgent and self-obsessed. They look like loose cannons, people whose habit of setting their own agendas needs to be curbed. But administrators sometimes forget that college students badly need to find themselves in a place in which people are not ordered to a purpose, in which loose cannons are free to roll about. The only point in having real live professors around instead of just computer terminals, videotapes and [photocopied] lecture notes is that students need to have freedom enacted before their eyes by actual human beings. That is why tenure and academic freedom are more than just trade union demands. Teachers setting their own agendas – putting their individual, lovingly prepared specialties on display in the curricular cafeteria, without regard to any larger end, much less any institutional plan – is what non-vocational higher education is all about.” (Philosophy and Social Hope)
Students need to have freedom enacted before their eyes – and this freedom is possible when professors are granted the space to develop idiosyncratic projects not ordered to anyone else’s purpose.

The experience of freedom arises in many different ways in different contexts. What they all have in common is relationship.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Freedom."
See also
Part 1: A Feeling. Mostly.
Part 3: Public Freedom, Private Freedom

No comments:

Post a Comment