We think freedom means doing whatever we want, whatever we choose, whatever we please. But we are not free to choose what we want, to choose our choices, to choose what pleases us. How free is that? We cannot be told what we cannot hear. We are imprisoned behind bars we cannot see.
Each of finds our own path to freedom. It begins with our waking up to how un-free we are. The more conscious we are of our bondage, the more we can exercise what freedom of choice we do have in the service of the life that is ours to live. We cannot choose any life. But we can choose to align ourselves with our life, the life with our name on it, for better and worse, in sickness and in health, from this day forward for as long as we shall live. This is our freedom, to choose the life that is ours to live, to submit to, to serve, a will beyond our will.
We get a sense of this “will beyond our will” in encounters with the numinous and through our experience with resonation. We do not make up what resonates with us. We do not decide what catches our eye. Our freedom consists of whether we will respond, to what extent we follow.
Our freedom consists of the latitude to determine to whom, or to what, we will give ourselves—to decide in light of what we shall live. Our freedom is to choose our own direction, to chart our own course, to find our own path, to decide for ourselves who will direct our steps, who will be our guide—in a “Thy will, not mine be done,” kind of way. Our freedom is the freedom of self-determination. And we make a mockery of it by handing ourselves over to the culture, to the norms and codes and structures governing how things ought to be, by working to live as life is “supposed to be” lived and going where they tell us to.
If we are just like those around us, how free is that? How free are we to voice an opinion that is not the opinion of those we run with? How free are we to see things differently from the way they are seen by those in our “in crowd”? How free are we to think, feel, or believe something that is not supposed to be thought, felt or believed? How free are we to speak with our own voice, to sing our own song, to live out of the foundation of our own authority—apart from any script, any set of established norms, any influence from the guiding voices of Those Who Know Best? Whose opinion matters most? Whose opinion do you live to trash? These are the people who are running your life. How are they doing? Our lives are empty because we've been digging dry wells where someone else told us there was water.
What is meaningful is rarely easy. Here’s the catch, what’s easy is rarely easy. We think we are saving ourselves time and trouble when we opt for easy over meaningful. We think if it’s easy, it will be meaningful enough. We sell out for easy. That’s the story of our lives, of the life of the species. We think easy is easy, but easy is hard. This is the thing we will not learn. Easy is hard. Short is long. Fast is slow. We don’t get it. We think we can have what we want: easy and meaningful. Sorry to be the one to tell you: Only in our dreams.
We stand between meaningful and easy and sacrifice meaningful for the sake of easy every time. And whine because life is empty. No kidding. Our only hope for a meaningful life is to live the life that is our life to live. We find our way to the life that is meaningful by asking, seeking and knocking. By searching, inquiring, experimenting, challenging. By doubting, questioning, exploring. By listening, and looking, and waiting attentively, expectantly, patiently. By being awake, aware, alive. By waking up, being conscious, in a community of the right kind of people.
The right kind of community, is a “we” composed of “I’s” who are being true to themselves in respectful acknowledgement of the “otherness of the other I’s” who are being true to themselves. A “we” is not a merger, or a blend, of “I’s,” but an association of “I’s” who use the “otherness of the other I’s” to bring forth what is also true and, in so doing, expand, enlarge and deepen each other. A “we” is formed around “I’s” who are becoming larger, more complex, more complete, more whole, more integrated thanks to the other “I’s” whose perspective is necessary for the development of the individual “I’s” and of the “we.”
The right kind of community is not “one big happy family,” where everyone silences her or his own voice for the sake of the harmony of the whole, but is, rather, a cacophony of voices learning to integrate themselves into a symphonic arrangement of individuals participating in the wonder of the whole that is produced by the “otherness” of each other. We bring out the best in each other by being true to ourselves, singing our own song, speaking our own voice, honoring our own perspective without striving for dominance or control. We are not here to quell, or crush, convert or quieten the other, but to listen to the other and to be transformed (deepened, expanded, enlarged) by the experience of “the otherness of the other” (James Hollis), by our “disinterested” (in the sense of our striving to force our way on the other, to have the other recognize how brilliant, wonderful, and right we are) interchange with the other, with all the others.
The right kind of community enhances the “self-ness,” the “otherness,” of each member of the community. If anyone feels diminished or dismissed or discounted or silenced or ignored, the community suffers. If anyone gives up self to belong to the community, the community ceases to exist. The health of the community is a reflection of the health—emotional/spiritual—of the individuals comprising the community. Our emotional/spiritual health is an indicator of our degree of alignment with the truth of our own soul, of our living (and speaking and being) in sync with our heart’s true desire. If we forsake that for the sake of the peace of the community, we die and the community dies, though the façade might live on for years or generations. Keeping up appearances is what we do best. But the right kind of community catches us in the act of “being nice,” calls our hand, and insists that we speak truthfully, reminding us that means hearing what is also true. The dialectic is not between what is true and what is not true but between what is true and what is also true!
Without this kind of compensating and confirming community of Others, the way we see things becomes the way things are. We slip easily over the edge and become lost in our own constructs, increasingly out of touch and disconnected. The right kind of solitude is possible only in the right kind of community. It takes both to produce the right kind of awareness, the kind that perceives what is true and what is also true, and lives in the tension, on the boundary, between yin and yang.
We have to listen to ourselves, but we cannot listen only to ourselves. The right kind of community of Others challenges us, confronts us, opposes us and provides the counterbalance to our subjectively biased view of the way things are. It takes an Other to introduce us to what is also true.
Listening to an opposite point of view doesn’t negate or cancel out our own. Oppositional is not adversarial but expansive. It asks us to take into account the “other side,” that which is also true. Every perspective is true as far as it goes, as far as it can see, up to a point, and needs to be enlarged by other perspectives which see more than any one person can see alone. All of us together can see more, can see better, than any of us alone can see. But hearing other points of view is not easy.
We are always changed against our will. We resist it all the way. We are the young child snatched from Mother’s arms and thrown screaming into the rite of initiation from which we emerge transformed. Spiritual growth is not for those who do not have what it takes to die. Again and again. Spiritual growth is for those who have run out of other options. We need the contrary voices to deepen us, enlarge us, expand us, wake us up, grow us up, round us out, and develop within us the capacity for true human-being-hood. On our own, we are narrow, shallow, blank-eyed (or wild-eyed) and empty.
Every church needs to have the capacity to define, to re-imagine itself, to be redesigned anew from the start all over again at any point in its life. Of course, there is no starting over in life, but, on the other hand, we are always starting over, beginning again. “O God of second chances and new beginnings, here I am again,” goes the old prayer. As it is with us, so it is with the church. And we need the capacity to redesign ourselves from the ground up, to re-think what it means to be the church in each generation. We have to have the freedom to bring to life now what needs to be brought to live now. To think what needs to be thought now. To believe in what needs to be believed in now. We cannot take what was meaningful to our ancestors and give it to their descendants. Nobody can hand us meaning. We have to create what is meaningful for ourselves in the moment of our living. And the church needs to provide the atmosphere in which this work to find what is meaningful is encouraged and sustained. May it be certainly so!