Arts and Culture

Called To Be Free

Third in a series

WHAT HAS BEEN on my mind as I have been writing this series of columns about freedom is that freedom is one of God’s greatest gifts to us. If we study the evolutionary process leading up to the appearance of human beings, we do not find freedom. When human beings appear, freedom appears. An atheistic existentialist such as Jean Paul Sartre claimed that there was no explaining the appearance of freedom. In Sartre’s view, freedom seemed to be a mistake in the evolutionary process.

In his reflections on freedom, Sartre claimed that human freedom was wonderful. He also had a somewhat negative view of freedom claiming that we were condemned to be free. I prefer to say that we are called to be free, though there is no doubt that freedom can be a burden. It can also help us to soar to amazing heights. My view is that freedom is a gift that we do not create for ourselves. We find ourselves free, bestowed on us as a wonderful gift from God. In his thought-provoking book “Personalism” (University of Notre Dame Press, 1952, pp. 132), Emmanuel Mounier writes the following:

“In affirming myself, however, I feel that my most deeply motivated and my most highly creative actions urge up from within, as it were unawares. My freedom itself comes to me as something given: its supreme moments are not those in which I exercise most will-power; they are moments rather of giving away, or of offering myself to a freedom newly encountered or to a value that I love.” (p. 66)

Reading these words from Mounier, I think of a line of dialogue from a film, “Marvin’s Room,” based on a play. The play was excellent but the film, in spite of having a cast that included Diane Keaton, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro and Hume Cronyn, was not. In the film Keaton and Streep are sisters, the daughters of Marvin played by Hume Cronyn. Marvin has been an invalid for years. Keaton has stayed home with him and taken care of him. Streep has travelled and hardly ever returned to see her father. At the climax of the film, Marvin is near death. Streep says to Keaton: “How did you do it? You have been unselfish for twenty years. I cannot be unselfish for twenty minutes. How did you do it?” Keaton responds, “I cannot believe there has been so much love in my life.” Streep says, “Well of course Dad loves you after all you have done for him”. Keaton says, “That’s not what I mean. I mean I cannot believe that I have been capable of loving so much.” So the Keaton character experiences the freedom and capacity to love as a gift.

I have come to believe that the more we practice virtue, the more free we become. My view is that the more easily we perform virtuous acts probably suggests that we are growing in freedom at the same time that we are growing closer to God. Unfortunately there is a view of freedom espoused by some in our society that suggests that being really free is to be someone who has no obligations or commitments. A commitment is something that restricts you, lessens your freedom and autonomy according to this view of freedom. The view that I think is more accurate and more profound is almost the opposite. Depending on the type of commitment a person makes, a commitment can foster a very deep freedom. So I think that nothing has the potential to lead to an increase in the strengthening of freedom as much as a life commitment.

I recently came upon an example that I think can help us see how a life commitment – a commitment such as the vows made in baptism or marriage or in the religious life or in being ordained a priest – can liberate people. The example was of a student who was doing poorly in his academic work because he was so disorganized. When someone helped him to be more organized in his studies, his academic work improved enormously. He attained a new freedom in relation to his studies once he became organized. Embracing an orderly way of studying freed the student in relation to his academic work. Life commitments can help people achieve a new order and a deeper freedom in their lives. The saints, deeply holy people, seem to have their lives going in one direction.


Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, every Tuesday at 9 p.m. on NET-TV.

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