Tag Archives: Freedom

Freedom

There are only two sureties in life: that we have been born and that we will die. The rest, at least from a finite human perspective, is variable.

No True Answers, No Answerable Truths

Contemplating the mystery of our birth—why was I born?—is likely to cause a certain degree of anxiety, at least for those of us who judge ourselves to be in mundane circumstances: my family is not wealthy; I am not wealthy; I am not famous; my job is not glamorous; my children are unimpressive; my spouse is boring; I am not exceptionally beautiful or witty or gifted; and, though I secretly tell myself I’m smarter than most people, I just as often fear that I am not. Erase me completely and there will be someone very much like me to take my place. Why, then, do I exist? The world is quick to provide temporary relief and sell us an answer to this unanswerable question. If we’re honest with ourselves, maybe after purchasing a few bottles of snake oil (and who can blame us for that), we will eventually come to the conclusion that if we can’t know about the reason for our own lives, no one can.

Death is a similar mystery with no good answers or reasons. We know what happens biologically after the cessation of life, insofar as we are able to agree on what actually constitutes life. But we do not know whether mind is coterminous with brain. If it isn’t, then where does the mind go after the body rots? If it is, then human consciousness is an epiphenomenon of matter and is therefore unlike any other thing (event? concept? process? ghost? singularity?) in the known universe—another unfathomable mystery. As Marcus Aurelius says: “Providence or atoms” (Meditations, IV.3). Life comes down to one or the other, even if we can’t know what either truly is.

Only We Care About What Our Lives May Mean

Even before we’re naught but dust, we will watch ourselves vanish by inches. Consider that in a few years, society will tell us that our significance has already passed. We won’t be dead yet, but we will still be told that it is time to retire and make way for those who are younger and therefore more socially relevant. Our worth will be judged according to what we have earned for ourselves in 20-30 years of active adult life. And such judgment will be based on the social values of the moment—ideas presently in fashion, not even, necessarily, what we were thinking about when we started the company, wrote the book, or climbed the mountain.

We will still be asking, Why, then, do I exist? And, as we reach retirement age, we may find others asking us that, too. Moreover, we may complain about the stereotypical characteristics of the Millennials, but every generation (like every individual) judges the world according to its own perspective and values. We, in Generation X, also judged the Baby Boomers. And they cruelly judged us as well as the Lost Generation, etc. Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis. Times change, and we change with them. And so goes the world.

But in spite of our all-encompassing solipsism, we will still have regrets. We will either have worked very hard in practical ways to do what was expected of us (and feel that we never fully addressed our inner potential) or we will have pursued some path of inner realization (and feel that we never got to experience conventional kinds of success and recognition). This may be an oversimplification, but the principle is sound. We will eventually realize, on some level, that we cannot have it all because we are going to die and our time is limited. This may make us cry because we can’t stop asking why we had to go through all this anguish and absurdity just to wind up in the ground. Or it may make us free because the inevitability of death puts all the anguish and absurdity into perspective.

Freedom From the Burden of Meaning

There may be some value when we contemplate life in terms of death. Embracing the inevitability of death can free us from what we may feel is a mundane and meaningless existence. Someday soon (especially if we consider the relative shortness of life), we will all be dead. All the people we know will be dead. All the things we cared about will have changed, some far beyond what we could have imagined. And those who follow will not think about us much. How often do you think about your great-grandparents? Your grandparents? Your great uncles and aunts? They are not a relevant or functional part of your day to day existence, even if you do have some way to regularly honor them.

At best, the people living after us will have certain ideas of who we were, since it is impossible to convey the dimensionality of a human life. If we are lucky, we will be summarized in terms of our professional achievements and historically significant actions (if any). Our images may be preserved in photos or videos, but those images won’t be us, either. People will never know who we really were inside, what we truly thought, how we truly felt. In every way that counts, we will be gone, questions silenced, problems solved, story told.  We will be free.

 

I met a traveller from an antique land, 
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone 
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand, 
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown, 
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, 
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read 
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, 
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed; 
And on the pedestal, these words appear: 
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; 
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! 
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay 
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare 
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

“Ozymandias,” Shelley’s Poetry and Prose (1977)

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The Portrait, the Authentic Self, and Freedom

Thoughts after spending 5 hours in the National Portrait Gallery, looking into the faces of Americans from the 18th century to the present day.
Washington, D.C. Government charwoman (LOC)

If I’ve acquired any broadening of perspective from all the hours I’ve spent in the Washington D.C. Smithsonian galleries, it’s this: every life is valid.  Everyone has a story.  Everyone is “okay.”  Although human experience is varied, everything we do, everything we are, has been done, has been experienced before by someone.  This is cause for joy.  It means that we can’t get it wrong.

There is no way to err or truly screw up.  All error comes from cultural viewpoints; it’s all a point of view; it’s all relative.  And looking back across history in these incredible museums imparts the realization that there are no true successes or failures, no right or wrong in any kind of ultimate, transcendent sense.  Everything that could be done has been done (and even so-called new things like space walks on Mars and other technologically aided novelties have existential roots in early voyages of discovery from history).

Because everything has already been done and there have been so many personality types recurring again and again and so many in each
generation striving in the same ways, the “general” of history validates the “particular” of the individual.  We lead lives that are different in their particularity (being unique to time, place, culture), but that have been lived before in a general sense.  The faint smile of Alexander Hamilton can been seen on people passing on the street outside the National Portrait Gallery.  George Washington’s armchair is something we might find in a living room (certainly in any number of attics).  FDR’s gaze in a national photo has the same depth and resonance as that of Arthur Rubenstein in his famous portrait.  The potential comparisons are endless.

English: An 1819 bust of George Washington hou...

There have been artists and explorers and statesmen who were considered successes or failures in their time, but all of them have passed into history.  And they were all valid.  Death really is the great equalizer and this is a deep relief for someone like me, who has been told he needs to prove his worthiness his whole life.  We deify our national heroes, but they were (and are) just talented people.  And there is talent everywhere; though, it is not uniformly recognized or rewarded.

Essentially, these realizations amount to one basic truth: we are completely free to do whatever we wish because we have the power to define those particularities and the grace of knowing that we are also part of history.  How widely we are known and if we are remembered is hardly up to us.  Our only responsibility is to remember that we are okay, that we can’t get it wrong, that we are worthy by default.

There are no standards of quality that are universal and transcendent.  The brilliant short story of yesterday will be disregarded and dismissed today in favor of something else.  And those works that “survive the test of time” are great because we can still see their greatness.  Our attitudes are what make them great.  Otherwise, they are works of art like any others–each with their unique expressions and depths.

Say to yourself, “I only need to do my own thing.  I don’t need to make any decisions out of desperation because desperation comes from the need to appease some external force or reach some external standard.  Beyond satisfying basic needs, I am completely free.”  The trouble is that the attitude of having to prove oneself to family and society is pervasive.  As soon as we shake it off, we find ourselves unconsciously interpolated back into that dynamic.  So our self-work must now be all about living for ourselves, as our authentic selves.

Authorship of one’s life is an inwardly focused prospect.  It begins first and foremost as a choice of perspective and culminates as an outward way of living.  We are all inwardly, which means perfectly, free.