Jesus said to those who believed in him, “If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
Now having arrived at a point in life where no small amount of my time is spent in retrospection, I find myself thinking often about the relationship in life between freedom and necessity. To see the awareness of a wider world that even those living in the developed world have today, I realize how circumscribed my own consciousness was as a young person. Even as I pondered my future, my own educational and then vocational possibilities, I become aware of, in terms of the situation and environment of my early life formation, how circumscribed my own possibilities seemed. As the circle of my experience widened as a young man, already by then having chosen a form of life by which to give my life direction, I became aware, as I continue to do so, how much wider were the possibilities for the person that I was. Sometimes, when I would be in Harvard Square on a fall or spring evening, I would find myself envying the young people who so early in life had access to the academic resources of such a university, or, as I would visit one of the large teaching hospitals and see the young medical students and residents who seemed so engaged in learning and serving others, I would wonder about the degree to which I had actualized my own potential so as to make my contribution to the world.
Both because of the external circumstances of my life as well as my own temperament and personality, I lived, as a young person, in a world of constricted choices. I lacked knowledge of “the truth” both of my own capacities and of the real possibilities of the world beyond my limited experience. At such moments, I experience the incursion of doubt and even regret. Has my life been less than it could have been, and I have I to some degree or other squandered the gift and the call that has been given to me? Have I, in truth, not freely chosen my life but rather made my choices due to constricted awareness and an anxious desire for security?
At the moment of such experience, I understand how it is that far too many persons live their later years in regret. From this place the apparent “truth” does not make us free but rather despairing. Henry David Thoreau believed that most people lead such lives of “quiet desperation,” that their lives are lived not in freedom but necessity, the necessity of coping with their anxiety by stifling their deeper awareness.
There is, however, another direction in which the kind of reflection I have spoken of can lead us. Rather than leading to regret and desperation, it can lead us to the truth that is the call of the present moment. As a younger adult, I was perpetuating my early life propensities to live reactively by acting and working in such a way as to adequately conform to what I perceived as the outward demands on me. I seldom wholeheartedly chose to spend my energies and talents, such as they were, to their limits in service of a work that had captured my heart. I did what was commanded, in the manner of what Jesus would call a “slave,” and looked forward to moments of relief and oblivion. Then, at a point in my life, I was befriended by and befriended a person who was so very different from me. He was passionate about his work, and seemingly could not do anything less than spend all he had to do his work as well as possible. Be it in his own studies or in his quality of presence to others, he withheld nothing of what he had to offer. He did not study for grades or attend to others in a seductive way. Rather he did all he could and gave all he had in response to the call he perceived.
Being and working with him, I slowly began to learn how unfree I really was. When I pondered the “road not taken” as I did, I needed to learn that those memories, of who I was and who I failed to be, actually contained in them a call for the present. If, in the past, I had limited my life by being reactive, by failing to freely choose but rather to withhold and just try to get by, the present moment was a possibility of wholeheartedly choosing my life and my work, of giving all I have to the task before me because I choose to do so. In the limits that are always present internally and externally, I can still freely choose how to live and work, whether to give all I have to the task, with all the risk that implies, or to never touch and live from my own truth and merely react to circumstances.
In this way, the “leap of faith” of which Kierkegaard speaks is to trust in the value and worth of my life even if I fail. It is to have hope that, however little I have, is somehow what is needed , even if to me it seems so woefully inadequate. It is to love the One who has given me this life, even when my life seems to me so pitifully small. It is only in our work, in giving all that we have to the call that is right before us, that we begin to recognize the truth of our lives. Until then we can keep thinking of our lives in imaginary terms. Because we have not yet touched our limits, we can avoid facing them. So, although our possibilities seem limitless to us, we are totally limited and constrained within the life of our own imaginations.
In recent days we have read in the Gospel of John of Jesus’ teaching that his work is the father’s work and his words are his father’s words. This is the truth in which we too are free. When we spend our lives doing what is asked of us, not in conformity with the world but in the unique word of God that we are, then we are truly free. For whatever the reasons we have chosen one road over another, that road has brought us to where we are. Where we are is the truth of things. Now the call is for us to choose: the truth of our lives in the moment and the call that summons us to do God’s work in this moment. And further, we are to choose that work freely and fully, to do it with all our heart, and soul, and mind, and strength.
As a young man, I feared experiencing my limits by giving my all because I thought they would confirm to me the truth of my sense of insignificance and worthlessness. As I result, I failed to choose life and so to know my own “life to the full.” I remained unfree because of my fear of the truth. My utter surprise in life has been to learn that to risk experiencing and manifesting those limits is really freedom and life. To give all we have, even when it seems not to be enough, is the very source of joy and love. There is nothing to regret in the roads we have taken, for they have brought us, one way or another, to the truth of this moment — the truth and reality of which is the only call we have.
Nothing guarantees freedom. It may never be achieved, or having been achieved may be lost. Alternatives go unnoticed, foreseeable consequences are not foreseen; we may not know what we have been, what we are, or what we are becoming. We are the bearers of consciousness but of not very much, may proceed through a whole life without awareness of that which would have meant the most, the freedom which has to be noticed to be real. Freedom is the awareness of alternatives and of the ability to choose. It is contingent upon consciousness, and so may be gained or lost, extended or diminished.
Allen Wheelis, How People Change, pp. 14-15