I have no idea if you have a sabbath day or what day it might be. And no, I’ve not become a preacher, but I do hope this short article provides food for the soul!
The Meaning of Human Freedom
In the 1890’s a famous American philosopher and psychologist, William James, spoke to college students about the Will to Believe, which became one of his shorter but more famous essays. Both words in the title are important. James believed in free will, not absolute freedom, certainly not mere fancy. And he understood that beliefs are not simply given, they are formed through a free and intelligent use of mind.
It is a sign of maturity that we take responsibility for the formation of belief as well as conforming our actions to our beliefs. It is this capacity, as much as anything, that expresses our dignity as moral agents and citizens. And in that moment, when he spoke to the Brown University philosophy club, he challenged the young people of that generation to encounter and exercise intelligently their freedom.
Today, more than in his day, James might be struck by the felt lack of freedom that prevails in our society. It would become labeled as alienation in the decades that followed his meeting in Providence. But even alienation, for James, would signal the presence of faulty, self-limiting beliefs. He might even sympathize with our loss of faith and feelings of being unfree, but he would not endorse such surrender.
Moreover, I do not think he would accept the pessimism and cynicism, the mental attitude of jaded spectators of society. He would call on us to stand up and be counted as free moral agents. Even if he were to fall short of that calling as a person, he would know it was his failure of will, his lack of courage. And in doing that he would be holding himself accountable to the full meaning of human dignity.
The Temper of Our Times
An angry Millennial-generation woman sat in my office the other day and told me that it was no wonder she was ridden with anxiety and symptoms of ADHD. She said, “I don’t know anyone in my generation who is not plagued with anxiety. The crash of financial markets, the dying planet that Baby Boomers left us with, and all the crazy polarized politics…” Well, you get the message. I did, as a Boomer.
We the people have made a mess of things. Whether it all began with my generation or not may not be the ultimate issue. We’ve certainly not done much to clean up the mess. After a decade of protest for civil rights and against war, many in my generation took a seat, especially those of us who were born into a more privileged group. And the pace of destruction to our environment and republic grew.
Self-interest, exhaustion, and cultivated skills of denial and other-worldly belief led us to assume that someone else would rescue us from our own destruction. Alas, the conflagration of fear and resentment have eaten away further at our will and our beliefs. We need both, the force of will and an enlightenment based on informed and well-considered beliefs, moral wisdom and the courage to act on it.
Come to Peace with Your Truth and Duty
I am not a churchgoer, nor am I inclined to dogma and ritual, but I do believe we are spiritual creatures and that there is a transcendent spiritual dimension of reality that should inspire awe and humility. One pearl of spiritual wisdom that I encourage all to revisit in times of crisis is the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Perhaps it’s time for us to invoke this meditation, to find our truth and the courage to act on our beliefs. If we can make a few sincere steps in this direction each day, and strengthen our will to believe, perhaps we can redeem ourselves and find a path of virtue.