Tag Archives: True Freedom

“The Great Gatsby,” the American Dream, and True Personal Freedom

The Great Gatsby offers a profound look at and critique of the American Dream. I found this paragraph from Chapter VI about Jay Gatsby to be particularly insightful:

His parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people – his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all. The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God – a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that – and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, meretricious beauty. So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.

America is a place of freedom: its citizens are not constrained by class or caste. In America, a Dakota farm boy can indeed become a millionaire or a celebrity. We Americans value “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” more than anything else. We have enthroned freedom as an absolute good, and built monuments in its honor all over our land.

The great Jay Gatsby is a fictional icon of the person allured by the American Dream. He had been born James Gatz of North Dokota, but he did not allow the limitations of his childhood circumstances determine his destiny. He was not afraid to grasp for godlike control of his fate and actualize “his Platonic conception of himself.” With voracious ambition, he launched out on his self-conceived, pseudo-divine mission of achieving the success that is available in America to those willing to grab it.

Those who have read the novel know how it turns out for Gatsby and appreciate what it tells us about the American Dream.  He goes too far in forcing reality to conform to his will, and his self-made destiny takes a wrong turn into self-destruction.

I have been reading R.R. Reno’s recent book Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society. In the introduction, he points out,

We Americans like to compliment ourselves for our independence and self-sufficiency. But there’s a dark side to our national character. A deep sadness comes when we realize, finally, that we’re on our own, which is where secular individualism brings us in the end.

American freedom, when left unbridled, leads to isolation from God. Absolute self-determination is simply incompatible with God’s Providence. As Reno puts it,

This world is God’s, not mine. It’s not for me to make myself into whatever I wish. God, not my sovereign will, is the Supreme Being. In him we live and move and have our being.

But our American society has so hyper-valorized personal freedom, that we are arriving at unnatural consequences.

Our dream of freedom promises that no man’s destiny is fixed at birth. Why, then, should nature dictate? Why should genitalia dictate? Why should our decaying bodies dictate? Why should DNA dictate? Why should anything other than freedom alone, operating in a void, govern our futures? Unless we’re ready to propose an end or purpose for freedom to seek and serve, we’ll end up saying that freedom is for the sake of freedom. The American dream thus turns into a totalitarian nightmare of political power marshaled to subdue everything— except freedom.

It is a beautiful thing that in America no man’s destiny is fixed at birth, but it can become a nightmarish thing if this freedom is not guided and channeled by truth. Fitzgerald intuited this reality and wonderfully captured it in his classic novel.

God has blessed us with freedom to develop ourselves up into flourishing human beings, and America, perhaps more than any other country, cherishes this freedom. However, when we overstep our bounds with Gatsby-like arrogance, we step into the dark side of the American dream – one that leads us away from God and into ruin.

The proposal that R.R. Reno offers in his book is the only way to prevent the American Dream from mutating into an “American Nightmare”: we must indeed cherish our freedom, but within the context of an ennobling and ultimately more liberating submission to divine truth.


Why You Need Leisure

Breaking from the Rat Race

Rat-raceEvery social system has its pros and cons, and meritocracy is no exception. While it allows equal opportunity, it also tends to favor overwork; it rewards power to the successful, thus encouraging the fallacy of identifying self-worth with personal success. When one identifies self-worth with success, he is inclined to work himself excessively since there will always be someone bigger and better to beat, and there will always be something newer and faster to get.

Living in an achievement-oriented society that rewards overwork can be degrading and even dehumanizing. To limit our existence to personal material achievement is to deprive ourselves of our infinite spiritual capacities. We are not animals who find their fulfillment in the repetition of daily survival; we are human beings who are capax universi – open to the infinite. We are capable of knowledge and contemplation, and it is not only good but vital that we allow ourselves time for both.

And this is the reason for leisure: it is a break from our workaday activities for the sake of contemplating and enjoying God’s creation. Leisure is not laziness, nor is it simply inactivity; it is being free from the tension of work in order to focus on higher things.

“We are unleisurely in order to have leisure.” – Aristotle

meadowWe all too often subordinate our vacations and weekends to our work: that is, even if we take breaks, we take them only in function of our work, and we break from labor simply because recovery of energy is necessary to continue laboring. But this is an inhuman way of living because it is actually a subtle form of enslavement to our jobs: even when we think we are free from work, we are actually still chained to it.

Leisure is not simply resting so as to get back to work. Rest is a result of leisure, but it is not its primary reason. Leisure, like divine worship, is one of those things that is done for its own sake.

Leisure is the contemplation of the beauty of God and His creation, something that can only be done when we free ourselves from quotidian stresses and tensions. In his essay Leisure: the Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper states that “leisure implies…an attitude of non-activity, of inward calm, of silence; it means not being ‘busy’ but letting things happen.”

To be at leisure is to consent to and fully accept your human nature; as one who is capax universi, you are capable of knowing anything you put your mind to and for this reason are said to be in “the image and likeness of God.” Obviously, only God actually knows all things, but you, as a human being, have the capacity of knowing anything. Although that capacity will not be fully realized until you reach Heaven, you are called to begin its realization here on Earth by taking time for “God-like” activity, that is, by taking time for leisurely contemplation.

Be still, and know that I am God.     – Psalm 46:10

When you are at leisure, you imitate God:

God looked at everything He had made, and found it very good…On the seventh day God completed the work He had been doing; He rested on the seventh day from all the work He had undertaken. – Genesis 1:31; 2:2

imagesThe ways of being at leisure are numerous, but they all share in common this imitation of God on the seventh day: cessation of work and contemplation of creation. You can be at leisure hiking in the mountains, walking in the park, or simply sitting in your backyard marveling at the beauty of nature. Leisure can take the form of being with friends and family, enjoying the beauty of the beloved people God has put in your life.

Leisure can be sitting down with a cup of tea and a well-written book. It can be watching or participating in an athletic event and enjoying the beauty of human athletic talent. It can be attending a musical performance and relishing the beauty of human musical creation. It can be watching a good movie or documentary, going to an art exhibit, or going to a museum. It can be the enjoyment of the finer things of life like good food or vintage wine.

Opening Ourselves to Beauty 

Whatever form our leisure takes, the important thing is the attitude that is behind it, which should be one of humility. When we are at leisure, we acknowledge that the world does not revolve around us and that it does not depend upon our work. Leisure implies that there is Someone greater than us, Someone who deserves the sacrifice of our time to marvel at His creation.

When we are at leisure, we free ourselves from the stress of work and open ourselves to the infinite beauty of God. As Josef Pieper puts it:

…the power to know leisure is the power to overstep the boundaries of the workaday world and reach out to the superhuman, life-giving existential forces that refresh and renew us before we turn back to our daily work. Only in genuine leisure does a  “gate to freedom” open. 

freeman3In summary, in leisure, you are free to open yourself to God and thus be fully human. This is why you need it.

Five Steps to Peace: Step 3 – Make the Best of Your Circumstances

1207-TR-WR02.01About seven miles off the western coast of Ireland, a lonely island looms out of the sea, the tip of a massive oceanic mountain. Fifty-four acres and 715 feet high, Skellig Michael is now home only to a colony of Northern Gannets, but there was a time when this remote outcropping hosted more than seabirds. For over 600 years, it was home to Irish monks seeking complete solitude and spiritual freedom.

Skellig Michael has always fascinated me. Even though the monastery has been unoccupied since the 13th century, just thinking of  those determined hermits continues to be an inspiration. I marvel at the desire for God that drove them to embrace such a life of radical separation from the world.

Living in a world that idolizes freedom, the idea of constricting oneself to a tiny islet can seem ludicrous, but I think that we can learn a very valuable lesson from those austere Celtic monks: peace and happiness do not depend on the circumstances in which we find ourselves but on the attitude with which we choose live those circumstances.

Flesh and Spirit

We humans are bi-dimensional beings of both flesh and spirit, and this bi-dimensionality touches every aspect of our existence. Because of our bodily dimension, we are always partially curbed by material circumstances such as time and space, but because of our spiritual dimension; we are never fully limited by these circumstances: we are always capable of transcending them and transforming them into conditions for spiritual growth.

We have two different types of freedom: one that is related to our materiality and the other to our spirituality. Material freedom is the absence of material constraints: it is freedom of movement, freedom of time, freedom from hunger, and freedom from anything else that can limit our bodily well-being. Spiritual freedom, on the other hand, is the absence of those things that can hinder our spiritual flourishing, in particular our lower passions and the vices that result from them.

Although both types of freedom are necessary for our integral well-being, spiritual freedom has the priority since it is necessary for achieving eternal life. Due to the superiority of spiritual freedom, it is worth sacrificing some material freedom in order to become more spiritually free.

Ancient hermitages on Skellig Michael
Ancient hermitages on Skellig Michael

This is why the monks of Skellig Michael limited their own material freedom so severely: the harsh discipline of their environment helped them build the virtues needed to be free from all that could lead away from God. Although they were physically confined to 54 acres, they were spiritually soaring, because they put the North Atlantic between themselves and anything that could distract them from God.Their material limitation was the condition for their spiritual success.

Although very few of us are called to such radical measures, all of us find ourselves in limiting circumstances; you could say that we all find ourselves on our own “skelligs”. Part of Christian life is accepting the hardships and difficulties of our lives as a necessary condition for achieving closeness to God:

If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. – Luke 9:23

In my own case, my “skellig” is the discipline of the priestly vocation: in order to grow in spiritual virtue, I have “confined” myself to live a life of poverty, obedience, and chastity. I have voluntarily accepted the horizontal limitations imposed by the these three evangelical counsels in order to be free from what could otherwise distract me from achieving the vertical freedom of spiritual growth.

Accepting your “Skellig”

Saguaro-NPS-cactus-flowers-6The key to finding peace is learning to love the “skellig” on which God has placed you and allowing yourself to flourish there. Some skelligs are smaller than others, but one thing you can be sure of is that the one on which you find yourself is perfect for you. God knows what you can handle, and he knows exactly what you need to grow in spiritual freedom.

When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves. – Viktor Frankl (Holocaust survivor)

Peace comes when we choose to take advantage of the good things at our disposal rather than longing for what is not. How ridiculous it would be if someone walked into a restaurant and, instead of sitting down and looking at the menu, chose to stand at the window and look at all of the other restaurants that he is missing. We would obviously call that person foolish!  But, unfortunately, many of us do the same thing in the way we live. Instead of settling down and seeing what is available to us already, we tend to waste time and energy yearning for something else.

No matter how constricting our personal circumstances may seem to be, they can only hinder our spiritual freedom if we allow them. Peace comes when we choose not to bang our heads against the wall trying to change things that will never change; it comes when we accept the life that God has given us and bloom where we are planted; it comes, when we choose to focus on how we can flourish rather than fixating on the deficiencies of our circumstances, which will always be plentiful.

freeman3Let’s take advantage of these last two weeks of Lent to calm our spirits and seek the peace and spiritual freedom that come when we content ourselves with what God has already given us, trusting that He will provide whatever else may be lacking.

The Statue of Responsibility

Viktor Frankl
Viktor Frankl

In Man’s Search for Meaning, one of the most influential books of the 20th century, Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl makes the following observation and recommendation:

Freedom, however, is not the last word. Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness. That is why I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.

Honoring Freedom

For Americans, this quote may seem a little perplexing. In the US and many other Western nations, freedom is practically an absolute value, an end in itself. It is something worth dying for; it is something worthy of being enshrined in monuments and of being cherished above all else. To hear someone say that it is “only half of the truth” or “the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon” can be disconcerting.

Nevertheless, it is true. Freedom is a necessary condition, but it isimage not an end in itself. If you think about it, we actually honor freedom more for the good that it enables us to achieve than for the value it has in itself. We value freedom because it allows us to achieve the goods of a peace and equal opportunity. We honor those who have died protecting our freedom because in so doing they protected the well-being of our country, for which liberty is an indispensable condition.

A movie came out last summer called The Purge: Anarchy. It is about a future United States in which one night a year, nothing is illegal. That night, absolute freedom is allowed. I have not watched the movie, but I find the premise intriguing. What would happen if absolute freedom were allowed? Knowing human nature, probably not much good, as the movie portrays.

Guiding Freedom

Freedom must be tempered and guided; it must be limited. G.K. Chesterton illustrates this fact in Orthodoxy with the following analogy:

G.K. Chesterton
G.K. Chesterton

We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased.

When the children’s freedom of movement was limited by the wall, they were free to play and have fun. But when the wall was torn down and they were allowed absolute freedom of movement, their games ended.

Higher Freedom

Gary Lee Price working on a model of the Statue of Responsibility.
Gary Lee Price working on a model of the Statue of Responsibility.

We have to limit our freedom to achieve higher freedom. Fr. Robert Barron uses an interesting example to explain this in his book Catholicism. No one was more free on the basketball court than Michael Jordan. He could do whatever he wanted with the ball. But that freedom of movement would not have been possible if he did not first limit himself to the rules of basketball. Similarly, no one was freer and more creative with the English language than William Shakespeare, but to achieve his literary freedom, he too had to subject himself to the rules of grammar.

Our moral life is the same. If we wish to achieve peace and happiness, we must limit and condition our freedom through virtue. Virtue may limit the options open to us, but it allows us to achieve a freedom that is better than absolute freedom: moral freedom, i.e. freedom to achieve the good. Virtue frees us from our passions and vices that incline us to evil; virtue enables us to do and achieve that which makes us truly happy.

And so, Viktor Frankl’s proposal actually makes a lot of sense. We have honored freedom with the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, why not honor virtue with a Statue of Responsibility in San Francisco Bay?

There is a movement to erect a Statue of Responsibility. To learn more about this project, visit statueofresponsibility.com.