Wednesday, March 5, 2008

More on freedom

I have a vivid memory of a college Sociology class, during which our professor became very agitated. The students were discussing why it was that people don't act in their own interests and for their own good. The general consensus was that "society" makes women think that they need to be so thin that they will starve themselves, and "the culture" makes people believe that they won't be happy without certain possessions and so they go bankrupt, and "public opinion" forces people to believe that unless they succeed by certain rigid standards they are worthless, etc. Our professor finally burst out with a nice speech about how society, the culture, and public opinion had no power of coercion and that people were not slaves to impersonal forces. He contended that people did things because they desired, they chose to do them. He said that many people throughout history had stood up to tanks, guns, and the threat of destitution rather than engage in behavior that was degrading to them. He thought that the students were being facile and unreasonable, and he suspected that no one had done the reading for his course.

This memory stayed with me because I remember the little leap of joy I felt in my heart when the professor spoke out against the notion that we are puppets of society. And yet, at the end of this course, I was still left with the question: "Then why do people desire and choose what seems to be against their happiness, comfort, or well-being?" Even as I was reading Teresa of Avila, T.S. Eliot and Thomas Merton in order to understand more about God, I began to turn to the field of psychology to find answers to my questions about humanity, including my own. The general answer that came from the field of psychology was that decisions and actions taken in the present are largely determined by a combination of inherited disposition and the impact of past experiences. In order to overcome these determining factors, one must resort to medication and/or talk therapy, both of which come in a dizzying array of forms. In the end, psychology concludes that whether people follow their prescriptions, stick to their treatment plans, or are non-compliant, most never break free from the twin tyrants of personal biology and past formative experiences.

There's a little story that I like to think about: An alcoholic father had two sons. The two brothers, one a teetotaler, the other a hopeless drunk, were asked why they are the way they are. The teetotaler answered, "How else could I be with a father like mine?" And the alcoholic son said, "How else could I be with a father like mine?" We tend to think that we don't have a choice about who and what we are, but we do choose; we are free. So, why do we act as though we are compelled by forces beyond us? Perhaps because we're too lazy, too afraid, or, as a result of a poor education, ill-equipped to pursue the truth of the matter: in any and every circumstance, we choose what we desire most. As Chekhov said, "Tell me what you want and I will tell you who you are." If you accept that human beings are born with infinite desire (and anyone in advertising will tell you that this is common knowledge), then you can easily understand that only something that is infinite will satisfy us.

In only one case is...this single human being, free from the entire world, free, so that the world together and even the total universe cannot force him to do anything...This is when we assume that [the person] is not totally the fruit of the biology of the mother and father, not strictly derived from the biological tradition of mechanical antecedents but rather when it possesses a direct relationship with the infinite, the origin of all the flux of the world ... that is to say, it is endowed with something derived from God...So here is the paradox: freedom is dependence on God. It is a paradox, but it is absolutely clear. The human being – the concrete human person, me, you – once we were not, now we are, and tomorrow will no longer be: thus we depend. And either we depend upon the flux of our material antecedents, and are consequently slaves of the powers that be, or we depend on What lies at the origin of the movement of all things, beyond them, which is to say, God. -- Father Giussani, The Religious Sense, page 91

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Dumbstruck by the Mystery

...our temptation is always to impose our prejudices or our measure on reality -- except when we are faced with a fact that leaves us dumbstruck, and instead of dominating the fact ourselves, we are dominated, overcome by it. If there were no moments of this kind, the Mystery could do anything, but in the end, we would reduce everything to the usual explanation. But not even a Nobel Prize winner can stop himself from being dumbstruck before an absolutely gratuitous gesture. If there were not these moments, we would find answers, explanations, and interpretations to avoid being struck by anything. It is good that some things happen that we cannot dominate, then we have to take them seriously, and this is the great question of philosophy. If the conditions for the possibility of knowledge (see Kant) impose themselves on reality or if there is something that is so powerfully disproportionate that it does not let itself be "grasped" by the conditions of possibility, then the horizon opens. If this were not the case, then we could dominate everything and be in peace, or at least without drama. Instead, not even the intelligence of a Nobel Prize winner could prevent him from coming face-to-face with a fact that made him dumbstruck -- instead of dominating, it was he who was dominated. Here begins the drama, because I am called to answer. It is the drama that unfolds between us and the Mystery, through certain facts, certain moments, in which the Mystery imposes itself with this evidence. These are facts that we cannot put in our pocket, which we cannot reduce to antecedent factors.
-- Julian Carron in "Friends, that is, Witnesses."