Freedom

When I was in high school I read “The Prophet” by Kahlil Gibran. It made little impact on me then, though I remembered some vague ideas.

I was young, and thought I knew everything, a terrible combination for taking in new ideas, especially challenging ones.

More recently I was reminded of this book, actually, of this epic poem, and so I decided to return to it. My first reaction in reading it now is simply to curse the foolishness of my youth! Reading it now feels a great deal like having a conversation with God, or at least a conversation with his cousin, Kevin.

You know that cousin, he is really great, and you like him a lot, but there are several conversations you’ve had with him when you are pretty sure he showed up directly after smoking a bowl. Alone. While watching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Through a kaleidoscope.

Ok, so some of it is pretty ethereal and difficult to wrap your mind around. But in all seriousness, that only tends to add to the effect of the prophetic voice in which this epic poem is written.

And today, in 2017, sitting in suburban America, in the first term of President Donald Trump, there is one section of this poem that stands out sharply as being poignantly prophetic.

Its title? On Freedom. Here, check it out.

“And an orator said, Speak to us of Freedom

    And He Answered:

    At the city gate and by your fireside I have seen you prostrate yourself and worship your own freedom,

Even as slaves humble themselves before a tyrant and praise him though he slays them.

Ay, in the grove of the temple and in the shadow of the citadel I have seen the freest among you wear their freedom as a yoke and a handcuff.

And my heart bled within me; for you can only be free when even the desire of seeking freedom becomes a harness to you, and when you cease to speak of freedom as a goal and a fulfillment.

You shall be free indeed when your days are not without a care nor your nights without a want and a grief, But rather when these things girdle your life and yet you rise above them naked and unbound.

And how shall you rise beyond your days and nights unless you break the chains which you at the dawn of your understanding have fastened around your noon hour?

In truth that which you call freedom is the strongest of these chains, though its links glitter in the sun and dazzle your eyes.

And what is it but fragments of your own self you would discard that you may become free?

If it is an unjust law you would abolish, that law was written with your own hand upon your own forehead.

You cannot erase it by burning your law books nor by washing the foreheads of your judges, though you pour the sea upon them.

And if it is a despot you would dethrone, see first that his throne erected within you is destroyed.

For how can a tyrant rule the free and the proud, but for a tyranny in their own freedom and a shame in their own pride?

And if it is a care you would cast off, that care has been chosen by you rather than imposed upon you.

And if it is a fear you would dispel, the seat of that fear is in your heart and not in the hand of the feared.

Verily all things move within your being in constant half embrace, the desired and the dreaded, the repugnant and the cherished, the pursued and that which you would escape.

These things move within you as lights and shadows in pairs that cling.

And when the shadow fades and is no more, the light that lingers becomes a shadow to another light.

And thus your freedom when it loses its fetters becomes itself the fetter of a greater freedom.”

Did you get Chills? I got chills on the opening two lines and they still haven’t gone away.

Kahlil here, in this short section of his greater epic (which you should read in full by the way, the link is above) deals a scathing reproach of America in 2017. And just as the title suggests, it is quite the prophetic act, seeing as it was written almost 100 years prior.

Two areas stand out to me most sharply here. first, this line.

In truth that which you call freedom is the strongest of these chains, though its links glitter in the sun and dazzle your eyes.

Freedom in America is something we are amazingly proud of. We have parades to celebrate it, we write books to commend it, and we take great pride in our defense of it. And yet, are we really a free people?

I see oppression around me everywhere I go here. The oppression of races, and genders. Ageism is a huge issue in our country, both for those to young and those to old. Where is freedom for the young couple trying to open a new business and feeling that they need to go toe to toe with our government just to get off the ground? Where is the freedom for a college or masters graduate saddled with 30-40-80,000 dollars in debt and only being offered jobs that pay 30% less than they were assured they would make as a starting wage? Where is the freedom for those trapped in poverty because as an 18 year old their dad was caught smoking a joint and now has spent his whole life in and out of jail becoming leashed to a system that claims its desire is to rehabilitate? Where is the freedom for the black mothers and fathers teaching their children how to try to survive an encounter with a police officer? Not an arrest, not even a altercation, just being under the gaze of the police now requires special training for several ethnic groups in our country.

Or what about our freedom of speech? If I tell you I’m still not sure what I think about abortion, am I really free to try to think that through in our country? Publicly? What about guns? What if there was something I liked about Donald Trump? or Republicans? or the Black Lives Matter Movement? Or what if I like DC movies more than Marvel movies? What if my favorite Doctor was not David Tennant?! [I almost passed out just writing that last one, the horror.]

Am I really free to say any of those things? 

I mean sure, I get it, this isn’t communist Russia or China, so I can say those things. I just have to know that If I do I face the wrath of the almighty American internet. And that wrath is no small thing, it has ended carriers, businesses, marriages, schools, foundations, and peoples lives.

And let me just note. I actually live in Communist China (which is a misnomer I hear on a regular basis, but that is a thought for another day), And I feel a great deal more freedom to discuss all these ideas there than I do hear. 

But that’s the bling on the chain isn’t it? That we can brag ad nauseam about our freedom while still living under the constraints of an ever tightening chain.

Please, show me the freedoms that we are so famous for, that we are so proud of, that the rest of the developed world does not also possess…

These words can be seen as prophetic for us, because we have allowed our passion about and pride in our freedom to be a vale for the work of binding us to its ideal.

One more area really struck me here as well. 

And if it is a despot you would dethrone, see first that his throne erected within you is destroyed.

For how can a tyrant rule the free and the proud, but for a tyranny in their own freedom and a shame in their own pride?

Donald Trump is a scapegoat. He is not the problem.

My friends, until you and I can come to terms with the reality that WE are the problem, no amount of president saviors or villains will ever make a whit of difference. And let me just be clear here; by WE, I mean ALL, by ALL, I mean EVERYONE.

Now let me be even more clear

I am not trying to shame you in this. More than anything I want you to NOT feel shame at this. I want us to awake to this, so that we can walk out our doors into our worlds and not be this way. You see, I believe with everything in me, that if we can understand that we have accepted the role of being the problem, we can also make the choice to not be. I don’t mean here that we all need to be the solution, only that we need to choose, actively, to not be the problem.

This is how we remove shame from our pride, by letting go of both.

And that is the path to our freedom. When we can let go of our pride in, pursuit of, and defensive nature over freedom, all sought at the cost of love, dignity, and respect for each other, then we can actually be free, all of us, together.

 

 

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