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.  

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.

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?

Giving Has No Season

I cannot even count how many times I’ve been asked what I’d do with a huge lottery win.  More than the average person, considering I’ve worked in places that sell lottery tickets.  Still, the question is one we’ve all considered at one time or another.  And there are all the things we’d do for ourselves and all the things we’d buy or give to those in our lives who we know have a need.  

But what would I do with millions of dollars?

Aside from whatever personal expenditures I’d make, my plan would be to spend my life leaving very large tips for service employees.  

There’s something really powerful about the idea of just giving to strangers, not because they are specifically in need of help but simply out of kindness and generosity.  Random acts, paying it forward, simply being a giving person.  Being kind just because the world needs more kindness, being generous just because you’re lucky enough to be able to give.

Certainly making a regular habit of giving freely has an element of thankfulness to it:  giving signifies an ability to spare some of what you have, that you have enough to share.  But more than that, it’s the sharing of goodwill and joy in a way which is likely to extend beyond that act.  It’s putting positivity into the world in a tangible way which encourages the recipient to do the same for someone else.  

The Chain of Manipulation

There are not many religions or spiritual paths active in humanity today which I would say I oppose out of hand.  There are facets of many religions and spiritual paths which strike me as singularly destructive and damaging to people, to humanity as a whole, however.  

Evangelism and mission work is one of those facets.

I wrote a few days ago about how easily the act of helping or accepting help can be twisted into manipulation, and mission work is just about the most blatant example.  I have a really hard time with the idea that any spiritual outcome is so important that it justifies holding a real need in front of another human like bait, luring them to your beliefs.  

It didn’t take much searching to find a blog post by someone committed to missionary work, talking about their experience and drive to engage in it.  The post goes in depth about the motivations for mission work which, clearly stated, boils down to the need to convert others and turn them from their existing spiritual beliefs in order to save their eternal souls.  There is no beating around the bush about it, either.  The fact that the missions experience detailed in the post was to earthquake-devastated Nepal and the idea that we should be called to lift others out of poverty and starvation were only mentioned in passing.  The physical help, the actual work of healing the sick and feeding the hungry and housing the homeless is just a means to an end.

How can we not be troubled by the idea that, when huge disasters happen in the world, groups of people swoop in to tell the victims that the state of their eternal souls is far more important than their physical life?  How is it okay to provide help to those who obviously need it and, in the process, try to undermine the spiritual underpinnings of their lives?

The blog post I linked above had one particularly troubling passage which described how, because the writer felt uncomfortable “darkness” while in a Buddhist chanting room, he decided that his long-held opinion that other world religions were harmless was clearly wrong.  This uncomfortable feeling reinforced a conviction to use the needs of the world to manipulate others into listening to religious propaganda.

Help should be provided when needed, when we are able to provide it, and never as a means to a different end.  Feed people, clothe people, give people shelter, teach people skills not because they might then come to agree with the way you think or because you get a reward out of it, but because they need it.  Simply that.  No strings attached.

Give and Take

I’m fairly sure nobody makes it through life without needing help from others.  By the same token, most of us follow some kind of philosophy or tradition which calls upon us to offer help to those around us who need it.  One thing that we have finally started to understand, however, is that those who offer or accept help aren’t always giving and/or getting the help needed.  What masquerades as help is sometimes manipulation, either on the part of the helper or the person in need.

We all know that, when we are really in need of something, our willingness to bend our own personal standards and preferences increases.  I remember once after I lost my job and was extremely short on funds that I suddenly found myself willing to go on dates with a guy I honestly could barely stand being around just so he would buy me dinner.  It happens to all of us.

Still, knowing that we can all be pushed pretty easily to that point, we have a tendency to use that knowledge to get what we want by putting our desires between someone else and something they need very much.  

On the other hand, we’ve all had times when our compulsion to help others causes us to give beyond what we think is appropriate.  Our relationships with others become leverage which allows others to tip our hand.  I think this mostly happens in dating relationships or marriages, when our love for someone else makes it difficult to say no.  

And yet, even though we’ve all been in a position of feeling coerced into giving more than is reasonable or healthy, we’re also prone to using our relationships with others to get more than we need from those who simply desire to help us.

How do we achieve a good balance between not using our ability to offer assistance as a way to manipulate others to do what we wish and not allowing a person in need to twist our generosity into enabling behaviors?  

First, I think we need to disconnect the call to help those in need from the call to change the hearts, minds, and behaviors of others.  The stronger we feel about how others should believe or act or think, the more likely we are to justify using an offer of help to manipulate those in need.  Second, we all need to get better at saying no when we know we ought to.  

Sometimes help means not giving someone what they think they need.  And sometimes really helping someone means not getting what you want in return.  Maybe if we were better at drawing a line between wants and needs, between giving and exchanging, we’d not struggle so much with achieving balance.