An Essay on Freedom

Sweet Summer Chorus

One of the pleasures of my summers is to sit by the cove. I access it from a path through the woods, and you cannot see my house, or any other, from this magical corner of my yard. Here I can swim at the flood, and watch from the ledge at the ebb as the clams send little jets of water shooting up through the sticky mud of the flats. The egrets time their visits for the last rushing sweep of the tide, when they can stand to their ankles and lazily scoop minnows out of the current. The only sounds are the wind and the dinosaur croaks of the seabirds.

And my neighbor’s generator, as I sit writing this.

I’ve just learned of the four idols: fame, power, money, pleasure.[1] We all have one that most compels us, and which we must take particular care to discern and check. I loathe power and am skeptical of fame, and while I like money, I know that, if it were truly my false God, I would have stayed in finance and sacrificed the slow, soft life of a stay-at-home mom in rural Maine. No, it is pleasure that I seek, and I was startled to discover this, because my pleasures are so simple.

Or are they?

I pity the youth with their camera phones and instant media exposure; when I was burning up my body and soul for the hedonistic fixes  of the party life, there were no records of my wantonness or debasement. We all pay tuition for our lessons, and I’m fortunate that the price was lower than I deserved for my foolishness.

But many years ago I traded that in for feeling good in the morning; nightlife yielded to day life and whiskey to coffee. Surely these are not vices?

No, they aren’t, but when my sense of well-being becomes dependent on these external factors, I’m in trouble.

Which brings me back to the generator.

New England doles out spectacular weather with such parsimony and irregularity that the vicissitudes of it are a central theme of conversation. This year it rained for most of June and July. The grass grows when it rains, but you can’t cut it. Therefore, every time it was sunny and dry enough to sit on the porch, my neighbor would fire up something with which to battle the landscape, be it a mower or a leaf blower or a weed-whacker. It became a bit of a running joke, but also one that was never quite funny – I would endure it for a spell and then return to the couch with my coffee.

His actions were interfering with my pleasures, and shouldn’t I be entitled to my simple pleasures?

As the summer wanes and the warm afternoons become increasingly precious, I have come to realize that I collect and cling to my pleasures just as jealously as another might to power or fame. I’m caught in a trap of attachment.

And as I sat in the splendid quiet by the cove, and then felt my body tighten when the generator started, I recognized it: the idol. My idol. My precious, if you will. Taken to the extreme, the desiring of the thing which gives pleasure can become so pathological that the pleasure itself is lost; there is no satisfaction because the thought runs away from the moment and into how to extend it, repeat it, keep it forever.

I want to be free; freedom is my highest ideal. There are two forms that freedom can take. The outward form can be stolen away in a breath; everything I have, everything I love, can be stripped from me by strength I cannot match, and I will be bereft. But inner freedom is my responsibility. It is the way through the darkness, when there is no promise of light. And inner freedom is found by saying,

Can I love the sound of this generator? I don’t have to like it, don’t have to enjoy it, don’t have to find it pleasurable, but can I love it? Can I invite it to intrude into my reverie and remind me,

“You’re not entitled to this comfort. You can enjoy it while it is happening, and then you must let it go, or it will own you.” Can the braying of a generator give me peace, give me freedom?

Yes. And when it can, then my pleasures become sweet, and never bitter.

[1] This idea goes back to St. Thomas Aquinas, but it was another of the gems that I received from Tim Ferriss’ recent interview with Arthur C Brooks.

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Walled Gardens
Post two of two on on truth, and the path it leads out of despair.