“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms…to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.” – Viktor Frankl
I’m writing this article while sitting at home on the 4th of July. Unfortunately, this summer holiday is being rained out in my part of the world. The cool temps, clouds, and rain make today feel more like autumn than mid-summer. So, while sitting here, I am thinking about freedom and how freedom applies to my life and not just a country. Do I have freedom? Am I truly free? Yes, we all have the potential to be free! Let’s find out how.
Have you ever thought of how minuscule our place is in the universe? I do. Try it now for a moment. In reference to the vastness of the millions of galaxies, and the large size of our planet, focusing now on my exact location, where do I really fit in? Am I just a cog in the gears of the universe, or do I have freedom?
A few weeks ago I attended a symposium focused on the current heroin epidemic in the US. The conference room was filled with professionals from multiple agencies, each focused on finding solutions to stop people from dying from opioids. As an addiction counselor myself I have worked with many people in their attempt to find freedom from their addictions. A person’s circumstances, life choices, views on life, and ability to obtain drugs all play a role in a person’s addiction. No one whom I’ve ever met aspires to becoming an addict, yet there are too many people who have lost their freedom to a drug. The ability for a person to move beyond one’s addiction into the freedom of recovery is, in my opinion, based on one important understanding; my ability to choose my attitude about myself and my life. Freedom is lost when we lose our perspective on life and allow others’ perspectives about us to take root and grow in our thoughts.
Not long ago, while I was out on a walk along the side of a road, I noticed a caterpillar also out on a walk along the same road. While watching the caterpillar I couldn’t help to think that his perspective on the world and where he fits in this vast universe is so much different from mine. Even though we both were only a mile or so from my house, would the caterpillar ever know that the world extends that far? I’m certain that he is oblivious to the actual size of our planet as his perspective, like our own, limits his world. There was a time when we humans didn’t even realize the vast size of our planet. How alike are we to the caterpillar?
As I further reflect on my caterpillar friend, I would like to think that his life’s perspective is simpler than mine. More than likely he stays focused on the present moment, hopeful and trusting that his instincts will properly guide him to safety and food. His sense of the present, without fear for the future, enables him to be free. When was the last time I was able to consciously focus on the present moment long enough to trust my instincts to guide me? There’s a lot I (we) can learn from this caterpillar.
Fr. Anthony de Mello, SJ, tells a story which I feel is appropriate to my reflections on the caterpillar:
“A rich industrialist from the North was horrified to find a Southern fisherman lying leisurely beside his boat. “Why aren’t you fishing?” asked the industrialist. “Because I have caught enough fish for the day,” said the fisherman. “Why don’t you catch some more?” “What would I do with them?” “You could earn more money,” was the reply. “With that, you could fix a motor to your boat, go into deeper waters and catch more fish. Then you would make enough money to buy nylon nets. These would bring you more fish and more money. Soon you would have enough money to own two boats . . . maybe even a fleet of boats. Then you would be a rich man like me.”
“What would I do then?”
“Then you could really enjoy life.”
“What do you think I am doing right now?’”
Freedom comes from our perspective on life. As with the person struggling from addiction, when I allow my worldview to be dictated by another, I am no longer free. But like this story of the fisherman, and my caterpillar friend, focused perspective on the present moment combined with an understanding of where I fit in the scope of the universe, allows me to live in freedom; a freedom which comes from within, not a freedom dependant from society, culture, or other people.
One of my favorite H. G. Wells’ book is entitled “When the Sleeper Wakes” written in 1898. The premise of Wells’ story is a variation on the Rip Van-Winkle tale of a person falling asleep for a long time, eventually awakening to a world very different from the one he left when he fell asleep. In Wells’ telling, this futuristic world, on the outside, appears to be a utopia. Yet, as the main character learns more about how this new world is organized he realizes that the working class, through their mundane and tedious work, sustains the “utopian” society. In this world there is no chance or even availability for upward advancement.
I believe that true inner freedom fosters a sense of hope and imagination. Who among us does not have dreams for their life’s journey? Wells, in this story, portrays a world devoid of personal hopes or dreams. By removing a person’s ability to advance, what is the point of either hopes or dreams? Dreams give us hope since we know that dreams have, and do, come true. My faith and life experiences allow me to hope and dream as my ability to hope comes from an inner freedom born of a perspective focused on the moment infused with the understanding of my purpose in the universe. I don’t hope and dream because it’s something I’m supposed to do; rather, I hope and dream because I can. Freedom is in knowing and accepting where I am in the grand scheme of things; choosing my attitude about it, at any given moment, is my freedom.
As I continued my walk, leaving my caterpillar friend to his journey, I wondered how I could find my inner freedom. Here are my thoughts:
- How can I change my perspective to realize that even though there is always more to the world out there of which I am not yet aware, the world I do know is filled with potential, adventures and new friends, if only I take the time to notice them.
- What can I do different so that I can experience a life full of hope and dreams toward which I can strive?
- What am I allowing to stand in the road blocking me from inner peace?
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