The Freedom of Being “Tied Down”

Such beauty as emanates from the following op-ed is usually not found in the New York Times’ polemical pages. Fiction writer Josh Weil muses about bygones summer spent with his brother:

Ever since I was a kid, I’d lived for summer — and, until a few years ago, sharing it with my older brother was what brought summer to life. We used to crouch on the bank of the Deerfield River where it wound south of Vermont, taking turns blowing up our Kmart raft, bulge-cheeked and frog-eyed, our mouths on the inflation valves, dizzy and sputtering with laughter. We’d buckle on bike helmets, paddle into the rapids and spill.

If you’ve ever been hurled head-first into white water, you know the feeling: your world upturned, your hold on it spun loose, the current pitching you forward so fast you struggle to grasp what has happened to time. When you come up to breathe, the air is pure exhilaration.

As we got older, we hunted harder and farther for that feeling. The summer I turned 16 we found it in England, on the shoulder of the M-1 freeway — where we stood all grins and thumbs — when an honest-to-God Madonna impersonator pulled over, picked us up, slid her convertible’s top down and headed for Scotland, singing into the wind.

That night, we climbed a graveyard fence, spread out our sleeping bags and watched the rising moon’s pale light paint the valley below. A week after that, we woke to the hot breath of horses, their muzzles lipping our hair. We’d bedded down in a dark field only to find in the morning that it was a paddock. But there they were, and there we were, and so we rode them — bareback, beside the highway, whooping till we fell off. . .

But then his brother falls in love, and then gets married, and soon, Weil’s summers are spent trying to recapture that feeling alone while his brother passes the time with his wife and infant daughter.

Have you ever passed through a place with the knowledge that only the fields and forests will ever know you were there? Have you ever emerged from morning fog onto the cobblestone street of an ancient town and felt the stares of gypsy children waking in the square? Have you ever wondered how a ghost feels, wandering, invisible, through the world? I’ll tell you: free. Incomparably, immeasurably, free.

Weil’s summers are time spent in solitary freedom, and reading along, we envy him for it. That is, until Weil gets injured, requiring surgery, and is told he will never hike again. While convalescing at his brother’s house, he arrives at a striking discovery:

We went to the YMCA every week — me trying to regain my strength with lung-aching laps, my brother and niece splashing around in the kiddie pool. My brother kept bemoaning the big shoulders he’d lost along with the adventures that had built them. But, forced for the first summer of my life to stay home (or as close to a home as I ever had), forced to stay still, I could hear the thrill in his daughter’s shrieks, the joy in his low chuckle; I could see pleasure bloom on his face as he watched his wife gather black-eyed Susans from the flower beds. And I understood for the first time how my May-to-September hunt for freedom had cut me off from all the other things that summer could be.

Look: There’s my niece between the rows of cherry tomatoes, her hair like a dandelion puff, a pint basket in her hands. Beside her, my brother fills it. Later, at the kitchen sink, my sister-in-law will wash the fruit. My brother will pass behind her. Reaching back, she will slip one between his lips. I know she will because all that summer, that was how it was. And I, looking in, watched.

The Christian tradition is a long affirmation of how paradoxical “freedom” can be. Jesus tells his disciples: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:23-24). The apostle Paul struggles with freedom constantly in his letters, particularly in Galatians: ” For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” But this means fully submitting to Christ, becoming, if you will, a slave to Christ. St. Ignatius struggled with this paradox as he, like Weil, lay convalescing and observed the remarkable happiness of the nuns around him, who seemed so constrained by the life they had chosen, and yet, at the same time, seemed most free.

Our consumerist world tells us that freedom is being able to do whatever you want whenever you want to. The paradigm of freedom is the man Josh Weil strove to become in those glorious summers of unattached, uncommitted bliss. This freedom is what Servais Pinckaers called “freedom of indifference.” But it isn’t true freedom. True freedom is, paradoxically, the ability to become the person God wants you to be. This is what Pinckaers calls the “freedom for excellence.”

I walked through a local mall today and reflected on these two freedoms. Around me at any moment were a dozen ads promising to fulfill all my dreams if I just purchased a particular outfit/appliance/gadget/cellular phone plan. These ads are a lie. For everything I purchase, my desires increase. That shirt I might buy would really be perfect if I got a new pair of skinny jeans. The skinny jeans would look ideal with a new pair of flats. And that belt . . .

The list goes on. And in the process of all that buying, we forget to notice how enslaved we are becoming to the fashion industry, to the advertising industry, to the mass media. Maybe this is what Weil was trying to escape during those blissful summers hiking in Scotland, climbing the pyramids of Egypt, camping under a bridge in Moravia. But even he realized the paradoxical nature of the freedom he thought he found, and the happiness that came from it. Each summer he had to try harder and harder to find the contentment and wonder each previous summer had offered. Each new adventure upped the ante. Until he couldn’t do it anymore. At 30, his body had broke. At 30, he had lost his freedom, and, it seemed, his happiness.

Except he hadn’t. Looking at his brother’s life as a married man and father, he discovers what he had missed. Freedom isn’t the ability to do whatever you want whenever you want. Freedom is the ability to be happy, not for a summer, but for the rest of your life. Freedom is the ability to be thrilled by the laughter of your daughter, or the ripening tomato on the vine, or your wife’s gentle caress. Oddly enough, it is when we are “tied down” that we are most free. It is “the freedom to love” and be loved in return, by our fellow humans and by God, that I think Pinckaers is referring to in his discussion of “freedom for excellence.”

But there’s a catch. Weil’s brother, in choosing the “simple freedom” that family offers him, is potentially, and probably, enslaving himself to a whole host of other things: mortgages, jobs, tuition, slip-and-slides. “Family life” so often becomes “suburban life” which is far from simple freedom and simple happiness. Weil’s essay aptly reflects this ambiguity:

By the end of August, I had healed enough to walk the family dog down by the river. I remember one time in particular: returning up the road toward the scent of grilling that came from my brother’s house. When I got there, nobody was outside.

I stood with the dog for a while, looking at the place where a Slip ’N Slide had been. My brother had let the plastic slide sit too long and now that he had taken it up, it had left its mark: a pale path of depleted grass running through the lawn all the way to the edge of the woods. Through the kitchen windows I could hear them — my brother, his daughter, his wife. Down there at the end of the trail, the trees were dark, tempting, unexplored.

And so the paradox remains. Weil recognizes the freedom that comes from being tied down, and also all the new ways in which that freedom will enslave him. As Christians, we recognize the factor missing in the formula: God. “Our hearts are restless until they rest in You,” says Augustine to his God. And so freedom is being “tied down.” But not to wives or children or houses. No, freedom is resting in God who alone satisfies all desire.


1 comment so far

  1. […] distinguished between the “freedom for indifference” and the “freedom for excellence” on other blog posts, but briefly, Thomistic theologian Servais Pinckaers emphasized in drawing this […]

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