Opinion: Reflections on Freedom

What if one rises to the day asking what will you teach me today? Then spends the seconds of the day like a student, learning: how the heart beats; how pride bows low, forehead to earth, in love; how the colors of pain paints suffering’s steps towards wisdom; and how peace sits always at the door of intellect, patiently waiting to illustrate calm. And you know with all your being that there is more than you see, more than you understand and truth shines brighter than any star and all there is in a today is simply to ask for help, to be led to where you ought to go and for the strength to muster another step towards that which you are in truth. To know without doubt that the sun is your friend; the air is your friend; the trees are your friends; the birds are your friends; the earth is your friend; the oceans and seas are your friends; and the heart of every human being––whether she knows it or not––is friend. How does one step into such a day? Is it by saying this is who I am and what I am capable of, or is it by saying teach me who I am and what I am capable of? And how does the day answer? Perhaps it gives the seeker lessons in freedom.

What if freedom is quite undesirable from several poignant perspectives like security, power and fame? For to want these, one must focus all of one’s energy into acquiring them and the way one does this is to live by a sort of manifesto befitting such existence and so to perform this identity in every space and never wander outside the limits one has set for it. In other words, a nice cozy prison of our own making where the rules are our daily bars. In his essay, “Down at the Cross” James Baldwin writes, “I have met only a very few people…who had any real desire to be free. Freedom is hard to bear.” Could he mean that freedom is hard to bear because one goes from limited confinement of exact expectancy into a bewildering realm of infinite magic, love? The more we favor control and rigidity, the more miserable we feel in the proximity of freedom. So too, freedom is undesirable to those of us who need instructions from outside our hearts or need to entertain and perform for the approval of others. Baldwin writes, in the same essay, “It is the responsibility of free men to trust and to celebrate what is constant––birth, struggle, and death are constant, and so is love, though we may not always think so––and to apprehend the nature of change, to be able and willing to change. I speak of change not on the surface but in the depths––change in the sense of renewal. But renewal becomes impossible if one supposes things to be the constant that are not––safety, for example, or money, or power. One clings then to chimeras, by which one can only be betrayed and the entire hope––the entire possibility––of freedom disappears.” Thus to cling to what you desire to be constant, security, and to fear to learn to know what is in fact constant, cycles, is to walk on red coals pretending they are red roses. And when one strays so far away from freedom and start to think, therefore, that it does not exist, would it not be natural for him to think that life is enslavement? That perhaps the best one can do is to be a house slave rather than a field slave.  

I am following a fascinating fashion related series on YouTube in which the host, a beautiful American woman, visits different countries and tries to bring to the viewer a sort of unbiased fashion journalism. In one of the series, she visits a Middle-Eastern country where violence meander the streets of the community, frequently, like a starving serpent. The host’s efforts to be open minded are very palpable and admirable yet in one particular episode her words appeared to me a good indication of how we imprison our beings. It was an interview with a man who had thrown acid on his wife, disfiguring her––and if I am remembering correctly––killing her in the process. He was not punished because it is common, in the chaotic society, for husbands and sometimes mothers-in-law to disfigure their wives and daughters-in-law merely because they disapproved of them. The judicial system couldn't find the man guilty. Why did he do it? He told the camera that his wife wouldn’t cover herself properly. In a muslim state where it is against the law for women to show skin, his neighbors were angered by the woman’s fashion taste and took every opportunity to taunt him. He tried reasoning with her for a decade, he said, but finally couldn’t take it anymore. So he decided to punish her by first disfiguring her then divorcing her. He said he was ashamed and knew he had done a wrong deed. Yet he covered his face because confessing his crime on camera convicts him. Perhaps he agreed to the interview to use it as a ground for confession and absolution. He said to the host, defensively, you would have done the same. But the host vehemently disagreed and in her eyes and face were the shock of being thought capable of the despicable deed. The man said nothing. One got the sense the interview had disappointed him.

If you were a man, born into a society where the proof of your manhood––that which is your source of honor and respect in your community––is indistinguishable from a firm control over the choices and actions of your household to reflect your community’s ideals, your failure to achieve this makes you a threat to that community. Your family becomes a danger, a circumstance that is trying to instigate change where none is wanted. Thus the community punishes you by shaming you and ostracizing you. You are no longer a man––your source of pride––you are an abomination and a disgrace. Pride is a flame that burns the chest it flares in and anyone who tries to extinguish it. For such people death can be preferable than to live with a defeated ego. But if you do not want to die, but still want to hold onto your role of honor in your society, would it be so difficult to hurt that which appears to be in the way of your happiness? Here is another way to put it, if you were born into an 18th century American home where a certain group of people are slaves and you are brought up to believe that you are superior to them and they are made to serve you, how likely are you to grow up and carry on the family slave trading business? Here is another way to look at it, you are full of guilt and fear of a people because your privilege is earned through their suffering and humiliation but how is it your fault? It is the way things are. There is nothing you can do about it, except to further exploit this people in witty ways that frees you of your guilt. Here is another way to look at it, someone hurts your feelings and you retaliate by doing something to hurt them as much as they have hurt you. But it is not your fault, you were merely provoked and lost control.

Many of us put our pride before all others, so, too, many of us put our security before all others and so, too, we feel we must punish those who hurt us by hurting them. And yet we never come to term with this channel in us through which we are the evil that destroy others––we only want to focus on the channel through which we are a blessing to others. We do not want to know what could drive us to hurt another so we would be better prepared to part ways with the chimeras we inherit from our fathers or the hurtful surprises we become to others in efforts to prevent the tides from changing. We claim that we know ourselves and yet we are often surprised by these selves. Perhaps because we are afraid to know how low we can sink and how high we can rise. Perhaps because we do not want the responsibility of our freedom.

Baldwin further writes, “To defend oneself against a fear is simply to insure that one will, one day, be conquered by it; fears must be faced. As for one’s wits, it is just not true that one can live by them––not, that is, if one wishes really to live.” If there have been people hanged to death on trees by people; if there have been people named as witches and burned to death by people; if there have been people who carried other people to concentration camps and killed them merely for being born into a certain community; if there are people fueling chaos in our communities just to serve their own desires for power and wealth, then the question is not whether or not one can hurt a fellow human being. But what drives us to hurt our fellow human beings?  And how can we be free of the selves that perform these deeds? Would going to the day and asking it to teach you, show you the depths of the self you posses at present and how it differs from the being that you are in truth? And will this start leading you to an overwhelmingly beautiful state where you begin to see deeply into your fellow human being, not as black or white, man or woman, adult or child, but as an incredible life force connected with yours, and for which your responsibility is to seek and accept your freedom thus making it easier for your fellow human being to believe, seek and welcome their freedom, too.

J. A. Odartey


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