Free To Be You And Me?

We’ve struggled more and more as a culture, recently, with this idea of freedom.  Specifically, we seem to be exceedingly tripped up over the question of how we can give freedom to some without imposing restrictions on others.  If I give my neighbor freedom to blast her stereo all night long, I give up my ability to sleep soundly, don’t I?  

So how do we actively grant others freedoms without restricting ourselves?  How do we allow those around us to do as they will without hurting us?

Freedom is a lack of restraint or hindrance, not a lack of consequences.  The extent to which we restrain or hinder others is within our ability to control, but the consequences they will face are largely beyond our control.  For instance, I can decide not to make any move to restrain or hinder my neighbor’s ability to blast her stereo, but I cannot guarantee that nobody else in the area will object or call the cops or beat down her door at 2am to complain.  

So the first question becomes whether we actually have the ability to restrain or hinder the decisions and actions of others as much as we like to think we do in the first place.  The extent to which I can restrict the freedom of others is dependent largely on the relationship between us.  I can’t actually tell my neighbor not to play her stereo loudly.  I don’t have that power.  I can ask her to please not do that, and she might agree.  I can try to generate negative consequences for her if she decides to do it anyway, but she still has the freedom to defy them.

When we talk about granting freedoms to others we really are making a commitment on our own part to withhold any negative repercussions we can deal out in response to their actions.  If I tell my neighbor she’s free to play her stereo as loud as she wants, I’m really promising not to call the cops or complain when she does that.  Now, that doesn’t mean, for instance, that I’m committing myself necessarily to harm.  I can grant my neighbor freedom to blast her stereo, but that doesn’t mean I just accept the sleepless nights which might therefore occur.  I can wear earplugs, try to soundproof my bedroom, or sleep in a different room.  In short, I absolve her of any responsibility or liability when it comes to the amount of sleep I’m able to get, and I take that responsibility on myself.  

When we talk about giving other people freedom — to act, to choose, to be — we’re doing two things:  promising not to actively impose negative consequences on them for exercising that freedom, and agreeing that we are responsible for our own existence and absolving them of that responsibility.  The way to grant freedom to others without allowing yourself to be hurt is to recognize that you must protect yourself from that hurt with your own actions, your own choices.

The reason we’re so obsessed as a culture with how the freedom of others infringes on our own is because we have forgotten that our lives are our own responsibility.  We have forgotten that the world is not obligated to do as we want, that our happiness is not the responsibility of others.  We have forgotten that we don’t have the power to force others to do what we want them to do.  We’ve forgotten that the ability to affect the actions and decisions of others requires some kind of relationship between us — either a relationship of respect or a relationship of power.  

We seem to want the power relationship despite the fact that there is no grounds for us to assume that power over others and we are unwilling by and large to give that power to others.  So the only thing left to us is to develop relationships of respect.  If we want others to respect our needs and desires in their decisions and actions, we have to be willing to do the same.  We have to reach out and connect to others.  We have to develop mutual respect, mutual willingness to bend.

We have to extend freedom to others if we want it for ourselves.

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Maybe Sunday School Would Be Better If It Were Actually School

I see a lot of stuff posted on social media about what’s wrong with the doctrines or teachings of various religions and how those tenets contribute to the harmful actions of their followers.  But there is very little thought given after that to what religions should be teaching through their doctrines.  

Many religions teach hate, often wrapped in words which try to masquerade as love.  So how would a religion actually teach love?  How can a religion teach its followers to love unconditionally?  

Many religions teach cultural division, especially an “us versus them” approach to people outside the faith.  So how would a religion actually teach that its doctrines are important but do not set followers apart from everyone else?  How can a religion encourage its followers on a beneficial path without teaching them to look down on other paths?

At the root of the issue, I think, is that many religions teach that humanity is flawed and damaged and horrible, that without something to pull us up and save us we would be doomed.  So how would a religion actually teach the innate value of humanity?  

The answer is that it can, easily, but then it won’t fit the mold of religion.  The West, especially, has become very attached to the beliefs which tell us that we can be elevated and saved and redeemed through religion, and maybe it’s because our culture teaches us to feel worthless and not good enough.  

I think what we need is a religious tradition which teaches us that our basic humanity is beautiful and powerful and that a great deal is gained by efforts to hone ourselves, not change what we are.  

What I get out of the process of writing

There are times when I find myself explaining my writing projects to others and, in the back of my mind, I hear this little voice questioning if anyone out there is even interested in what I have to say.  Are my thoughts relevant to anyone else?  

 

In the end, though, I have to tell myself that’s not the point and just keep writing.  It’s more about getting something out of it for myself during the writing part of the process, and once that’s done there’s no reason not to release it to the wild, as it were.  Once I’ve gotten what I can out of the research and thinking and organizing of thoughts and articulating of ideas, the product of all that mental activity should be given a chance to live a life of its own.

 

What I hope others get out of my writing and what I get out of it myself are two different things entirely.  Contrary to what many may think, my mission isn’t to get others to believe the way I believe.  I don’t intend to start a new religion or whatnot.  I just want people to actually think about their spirituality, to really think about what it says and what it says about them, what it guides them to do with their lives and their thoughts, how it asks them to interact with others.  I want to combat spiritual tunnel-vision.  

 

But for myself, I write to work through my thoughts, to arrive at some kind of stable foundation of thinking and expression of those thoughts.  It’s research and journaling, worship and ritual, a spiritual way of life in and of itself.  If dumping the spiritual blinders leads others to embark on a similar journey, to write and think and share with others, then I will have succeeded beyond my expectations.

Elixir and Ambrosia

Back when my wife and I considered ourselves practicing witches, we used to follow our private ritual circles with the traditional cakes and ale, or in our case pre-packaged snack cakes and tea.  Traditional or not, the idea was to ground ourselves after the ritual experience and to take time to share food and conversation before going on with our mundane lives.

Though this isn’t nearly as symbolic as the use of food and drink in other religious contexts (Christian communion, for instance), the ritual use and significance of foods and beverages is a nearly universal phenomenon.  Everything from fasts and ritual breaking of fasts to special foods prepared for certain celebratory meals can be found in a wide range of traditions.  

For the most part, the food or drink itself is merely a symbol of some kind, either because of its ingredients or preparation, or the timing of its consumption is symbolic or meaningful.  This gets carried through all aspects of our lives, well beyond spiritual boundaries.  Certain foods are associated with certain occasions or situations, like turkey with Thanksgiving or hot dogs with baseball games.  

Far from being silly or meaningless, these associations we make with foods and beverages are an important part of our personal ritual lives.  In fact, it’s almost a natural reaction to mark special occasions with special meals, especially those which include gatherings of friends and family.  What we eat and why and with whom is really the foundation for observing what’s truly important to us.

Do Unto Others and Really Mean It

I posted a few days ago about the Golden Rule and how, despite its prevalence in a wide variety of religions and philosophies, humanity seems to struggle mightily with actually living it.  I found a blog which did a 30-day series of posts highlighting the various versions.  Some focus on the aspect of not harming others in ways you wouldn’t want to be harmed, such as in Buddhism, Confucianism, Zoroastrianism, and Baha’i.  Some focus on bestowing the good you wish for yourself on others, such as Islam.  Christianity and Jainism espouse a more generally empathetic approach to acting towards others, simply asking us to think about how we’d feel in the other person’s shoes.  Still others simply bring attention to the ways in which we are all connected and united in existence, such as Taoism, Sikhism, Native Spirituality, and Unitarianism.

The problem clearly isn’t in the concept.  

Not only are modern humans bad at empathy in general, we’re especially bad at empathy when we view the other person as “other”.  And we’re really good at justifying our actions and thoughts, especially if we can hide behind some sort of rule or strong belief.  

The Golden Rule in all its forms fails as soon as we allow ourselves to pretend that we are above the transgressions and offenses committed by others.  The Golden Rule fails as soon as we draw lines and standards which set us on a pedestal above other humans.  The Golden Rule fails as soon as we allow ourselves to pretend that, were we to sink so low as to do what these other people do, we would wish for someone to correct us and steer us back to what’s right.

The fact that so many major religions have specifically called upon followers to act with empathy, to put ourselves in the shoes of those we might otherwise treat as lower or lesser, should demonstrate to us that this is a very important element of human existence.  If we can’t master this one thing, we fail at being a good human.  

Maybe instead of teaching dogma and rules, doctrine and ritual, we teach empathy as the central tenet of all human faith.  Maybe then we’d finally start to get it right.

The Golden Rule Revisited

Despite the fact that so many religions include it, the Golden Rule is apparently a difficult concept for humans.  It’s a simple concept, but proper execution requires one to understand that it is to be applied across the board, not just to those you care about.  It means being honest about the things we do and say, actually realizing when we’re treating others in ways we would hate to be treated ourselves.  

What if, every time we asked someone for their time, their sympathy, their agreement, their resources, we committed to giving the same to someone else?

What if, every time we found ourselves laughing at someone else or judging someone, we committed to sitting down and making a list of all the things we’ve ever heard someone laugh at or judge us for?

What if, every time we complained about something wrong with the world around us, we committed to changing something about our own life?

What if, every time we preached at someone, we committed to sitting and truly listening to someone else’s sermon?

Would the idea be clearer then?  

Return on Investment

Everything we do in life involves an investment.  Sometimes it’s money, sometimes it’s time, sometimes it’s just emotional and physical energy.  Sometimes it’s a sacrifice of other things we give up in order to do something else.  We don’t often think about how much of the intangibles we put into the things we choose to fill our lives with.  

Part of the reason we have trouble doing this kind of accounting is because, in the end, it asks us to create some kind of exchange rate between tangibles like time or money and intangibles like contentment or influence or camaraderie.  How much time are you willing to put into a pursuit if you only get out so much joy?  How much access to knowledge or support makes that time worth it?  What if you start counting up how much money you spend on it?  Is it still worth it?

Of course, we do this kind of tally in a much more intuitive way, usually when we start to feel that the balance is tipped too far in one direction.  We start to feel drained by something, overextended, frustrated at lack of fulfilling experiences.  We start to feel like we’re stretched too thin or that people are asking too much of us, that our obligations are keeping us from doing things we care about otherwise.

When I moved out on my own after college I ran into such an intuitive accounting.  I’d always enjoyed my church experiences in my family church, but I got a lot of return on that investment of time and energy.  I got time with family I otherwise never saw, I got opportunities to learn things and develop skills like playing the organ.  But once I was living nine hours away from family and faced with the prospect of sitting in a pew thrice a week without the perks I’d previously enjoyed, the return on investment wasn’t worth it.  I was suddenly a lot less willing to spend my Sundays on church because I didn’t think I’d get enough out of the experience to justify the cost.

The complication when it comes to spiritual endeavors is that there’s the added return of cultural approval.  To the extent that we feel it’s important to satisfy the expectations of those in our lives who expect us to participate in certain spiritual activities or communities, the fact that we don’t feel personally balanced in terms of costs and benefits can be justified by a feeling of obligation.  But in the end, is that any different than spending more than you can afford on clothing or a car or dinner just because you don’t want others to judge you negatively?

How much is the obligation we feel to others really worth spending time and energy on?