Hemmed in by Freedom

The Great Incongruity

“Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose
Nothin’, don’t mean nothin’, honey, if it ain’t free, no no
Yeah, feelin’ good was easy, Lord, when he sang the blues
You know feelin’ good was good enough for me
Good enough for me and my Bobby McGee.”

— Kris Kristofferson, Me and Bobby McGee

I have experienced complete freedom twice in my life. Ironically, one experience involved profound lack of authority, and the other unlimited submission to it. The Ukraine War & the ... Diesen, Glenn Best Price: $27.84 Buy New $27.02 (as of 01:44 UTC - Details)

The first experience was at the tender ago of 18, when I set out to backpack around the world. Every possession I had was contained in a 70-pound pack — my house, my clothes, my tools, my finances. For most of that trip, I was utterly out of contact with any support network, and any attempt to contact anyone who gave a shit about my welfare involved a choice between eating and a heart-warming 3-minute call to safety. It was 1980, and a long-distance call required a reservation at a telegraph office in some god-forsaken two-goat village, and a meter above the phone displaying just exactly how much food I wasn’t going to get.

The second experience was as a Benedictine monk in deeply remote northern New Mexico. Here, the phone involved a radio connection to the Chama forestry service, who patched calls through to the landlines. Mail only went out or came in once a month, when the brothers made a two-day supply run into Santa Fe. In this case, I had no possessions, spent a year without a coin in my pocket, had communal housing and clothing, and one day a week when I was permitted to remain in isolation from vigils to vespers, and that time was usually scheduled for reading by my novice master.

In the first case, I was under the absolute rule of my stomach, and in the second case by my abbot. In the former, my day was consumed with securing enough food to survive, and in the latter, all my physical needs were secured, but my life was strictly regulated and monitored on my spiritual journey.

In both cases, I was absolutely free.

When folks talk about freedom, they generally seem to mean they want to choose their master. There is no true freedom in this world. In the end, we must either serve ourselves or the community. In either case, we are never completely without some control mechanism that requires our utter submission. So how can anyone ever talk about freedom, when there is none to be had?

It seems, then, that true freedom is the ability to choose to which authority to which we submit.

In the backpacking experience, I had no schedule but that I created it for myself. If I wanted to catch a train or bus, I had to be at a boarding point at a particular date and time, but if I was not, it didn’t matter, as I did not have to be at the destination at any particular time. I had no responsibility to be in any particular place at any particular time. My only unavoidable tasks were to consume a certain number of calories and get a certain amount of sleep per day, and both were imposed on me by my own mortal coil.

It was the kind of freedom we Merkins idolize in our cowboy mythos. It was the kind of freedom that made me wholly and completely responsible for myself, but in saying that, I enthroned my Self as the authority to which I owed fealty.

By contrast, the monastic experience was the polar opposite. The entire philosophy of monasticism is the mortification of the body in pursuit of Enlightenment. In this case, my schedule was strictly regulated and adhered to. My work was assigned by virtue of my talents and skills, as assessed by third parties. My worldly identity was taken away and replaced by one that was approved by the community. None of my labor benefitted me, but was for the greater good. In exchange, I was given a stone bench to sleep on and a sufficient amount of food to fuel my labor, and enough clothing in the warehouse to provide protection from the elements, but I owned none of it. Union Terror: Debunkin... Addicott, Dr. Jeffrey F Best Price: $19.76 Buy New $21.95 (as of 09:03 UTC - Details)

This kind of freedom involves building fences around the physical body, in order to free the mind and spirit to pursue greater wisdom. It is complete and voluntary submission to The Rule as a means to a higher goal. The communal life removes certain mundane cares to provide more time to the pursuit of less tangible rewards. It is a very liberating life and much closer to what most of us live than we might think at first blush.

We live in societies, which are governed by rules that remove certain variables in order that we can pursue other, more ephemeral goals. We replace abbots with administrators. We agree to certain boundaries to reduce collective risk. We pool resources to provide basic needs. We perform labor that creates value for society.

The primary difference between society and monasticism is the accumulation of wealth. We form societies in order to reduce risk in the act of producing and raising children, who presumably will perpetuate the society and the species. We amass wealth from our labors to enhance our enjoyment of life, and also to provide a stepping stone to our progeny. The family is a microcosm of society as a whole.

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