You cannot be in the United States for long without running into the word “freedom.” In fact, the concept of “freedom” extends far beyond the literal and specific (i.e. democracy) into a glorious and mythical abstraction.
We are free.
is wildly incomplete. Sure, compared to some (if not many) countries, our citizens enjoy many liberties, but to claim Freedom Absolute feels a bit excessive.
It’s as if our patriotism commandeered the word directly from the Christian religion, where freedom is comparable to enlightenment–a glory-to-God kind of freedom.
Galatians 5:1 reads: Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage. (The yoke of bondage being sin and/or the law, depending on which Bible version you prefer.) At some point every abstraction runs into this same, ambiguous muddle. Outside of a context, what is it exactly? (i.e. how can you measure it? know it? define it?)
I like the concept of freedom, and, in a way, I feel like most of us pursue it.
And though most of us can agree that freedom is desirable, we all seem to look for it in different places and in different ways.
To one, freedom may mean lack of relationship (the old ball and chain variety). To another, the lack of financial obligation. Freedom could mean mental health (e.g. lack of addiction) or a breaking from the past. In fact, it seems the easiest way to understand the word is by what it is not: Enslaved. Contained. Controlled.
Jonathan Franzen recently (semi-recently) published an extensive and vigorous novel that encircles this word (and concept) again and again. The book’s named Freedom and its at times hysterical, at times despairing, love story crawled so low to the ground–so real with human grit (and lack of sentiment), it was often difficult to read.
My dad hated the book. He found its realism distasteful.
“Why would I want to read about ordinary people making bad choices?” He couldn’t finish it, he said. He saw nothing in those pages to strive for, no inspiration to take away.
My sister nodded. “Exactly. And if you would have finished the novel you would have seen that it’s a book about forgiveness. That’s what you take away. I thought it was beautiful.”
As she said this, I sat up straighter in my chair. Could this be it? Is this true freedom–Forgiveness in some shape or form, whether it be forgiving or forgiven.
I’m sure I don’t have to elaborate on the role forgiveness plays in the Christian paradigm. But, the Christian faith is not alone in this. Forgiveness plays an integral role in many religions.
Buddhism, Sikhism, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Jainism, the list goes on. I found this particularly lovely quote on the Forgiveness Wiki page (Yes, I used Wikipedia. I’m busy, these days. My research has got to be quick.)
“Love the creatures for the sake of God and not for themselves. You will never become angry or impatient if you love them for the sake of God. Humanity is not perfect. There are imperfections in every human being, and you will always become unhappy if you look toward the people themselves. But if you look toward God, you will love them and be kind to them, for the world of God is the world of perfection and complete mercy. Therefore, do not look at the shortcomings of anybody; see with the sight of forgiveness.”
— `Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 92
Forgive each other, the weather, fate. Forgive the moment, the shoulds, the should nots. Forgive the past, debts and imbalances, the times when there was never enough.
Forgive and forget. This way of thinking leads me to consider, perhaps the least-free character in modern literature: Funes the Memorious. Jorge Luis Borges describes the character as unable to forget anything, and I mean anything–down to the tiniest detail. The short tale begins and ends with the man sitting in a dark room, every sensual undertaking (visual, aural, tactile) painful to him.
We, in a glance, perceive three wine glasses on the table; Funes saw all the shoots, clusters, and grapes of the vine. He remembered the shapes of the clouds in the south at dawn on the 30th of April of 1882, and he could compare them in his recollection with the marbled grain in the design of a leather-bound book which he had seen only once, and with the lines in the spray which an oar raised in the Rio Negro on the eve of the battle of the Quebracho. These recollections were not simple; each visual image was linked to muscular sensations, thermal sensations, etc. He could reconstruct all his dreams, all his fancies. Two or three times he had reconstructed an entire day. He told me: I have more memories in myself alone than all men have had since the world was a world. And again: My dreams are like your vigils. And again, toward dawn: My memory, sir, is like a garbage disposal.
. . . Swift writes that the emperor of Lilliput could discern the movement of the minute hand; Funes could continuously make out the tranquil advances of corruption, of caries, of fatigue. He noted the progress of death, of moisture. He was the solitary and lucid spectator of a multiform world which was instantaneously and almost intolerably exact. Babylon, London, and New York have overawed the imagination of men with their ferocious splendour; no one, in those populous towers or upon those surging avenues, has felt the heat and pressure of a reality as indefatigable as that which day and night converged upon the unfortunate Ireneo in his humble South American farmhouse. It was very difficult for him to sleep. To sleep is to be abstracted from the world; Funes, on his back in his cot, in the shadows, imagined every crevice and every moulding of the various houses which surrounded him. (I repeat, the least important of his recollections was more minutely precise and more lively than our perception of a physical pleasure or a physical torment.) Toward the east, in a section which was not yet cut into blocks of homes, there were some new unknown houses. Funes imagined them black, compact, made of a single obscurity; he would turn his face in this direction in order to sleep.
So we aren’t bad off as all that, and while I think Freedom Proper will prove elusive to most of us–at least in a permanent sense, I imagine we can acheive it in small momments. In those small moments of grace, when we forgive the world everything and simply exist. Those moments are enough to keep us hungry for more, I suppose.
Forgive and forget and be free. One of many paths, I’m sure, but one I’m happy to have found.