Choosing One’s Self (Dr. Fred Howard)

There was a man who had been stranded on a desert island for 15 years. One day a cruise ship spotted him and sent a rescue boat. When the boat arrived, the rescuer asked the man, “Are you here by yourself?” The man answered, “Yes, I’ve been stranded here for 15 years by myself.” The rescuer then pointed to a hill a short distance away and asked, “If you are here alone, why are there three huts up there?” The man replied, “You see that hut in the middle, well, that’s where I live.” The rescuer nodded. The man continued, “and that hut on the left, that’s where I go to church.” The rescuer then nodded again and asked, “Well, then what’s that hut on the right?” The man explained, “Well, that’s where I used to go to church.”

Though I have told that story to people from virtually every spiritual tradition that calls their gathered community a church, and it has never failed to elicit a laugh, I find the story especially appropriate to our faith tradition. How many see a potential UU in this fellow on the desert island? According to two polls done in 1997, one by the UUA, 90% of our members found a spiritual home in Unitarian Universalism after leaving another religious tradition. No real surprise here. Our membership consists of those who are in constant search for relationship and a sense of home among others who have chosen to turn within. We look for spiritual compatriots among those whose lives are continually shaped by the great spiritual questions – like, “Why am I here?” and, “With whom do I belong?” We are a community of seekers.

Many of us, myself included, find that the ongoing process of growth and maturity requires us to continually reassess ourselves and the world around us. The free and responsible search for truth and meaning may require me to seek change in my location or circumstances and sometimes it may require a change inside myself. Just like the fellow on the island, I seek community. I can learn a lot from him. What makes his story so poignant is that in his religious quest the changes both within and outside himself were one and the same. He chose a different circumstance, and a different location, but did he not also, at the same time, choose a different way of being in the world? If not, then what would have been different about his new location? I contend that this is a lot of what freedom is all about; that is, it has to do with the choices we make about how we will respond to and live in the broken world around us.

July 4th marked the celebration of freedom by our forefathers who risked much and sometimes sacrificed all in their determination to secure the civil and religious liberties we enjoy today. On this Independence Day Sunday, I would like to invite you to explore with me one tiny realm in the great landscape of experience we call freedom. I am referring to that realm that occurs within our own minds and spirits as we survey the options available to us as we chart our own destiny – the realm of our own personal freedom. The psychology of freedom is not so different as you might imagine from those principles of independence sent forth by the framers of our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution.

Allen Wheelis, in his book How People Change, says freedom is the awareness of alternatives, and the ability to choose. That is to say, freedom in this personal realm is not bestowed on us by simply being an American, or even by being a Unitarian Universalist for that matter, even if we are privileged enough to occupy one or both of those niches. Alternatives can still evade our awareness. I leave the church today to go on a picnic. As I cross the parking lot, I see an ant crossing the pavement in front of my car, doomed in a moment to be crushed by the tire of one of a hundred passing wheels. There is a grand alternative for this endangered creature. It has but to climb up upon a safe ledge on the underside of my car and in a few minutes it will be in a paradise for ants. But since this option is unknowable to the doomed creature, it yields it no freedom. Freedom is not an objective attribute of life. No matter how many alternatives are available to us, without having an awareness of them, they grant us nothing. Our consciousness of our options and our possible ways of response are required if we are to gain greater freedom.

A more personal example. Actually, this is a negative example, but it still illustrates my point. I remember how the girl who is now my wife eluded my awareness for about a year when we were in college together because it was common knowledge that she had a boyfriend back home. Now, those of you who know me may find this hard to believe, but in my younger days I was a bit awkward around the opposite sex. But, since Kathy had this boyfriend and there was no prospect of a dating relationship, all the pressure was off and we could just be friends. I did not possess the awareness of the alternative that she might have been available. In this case, my lack of awareness worked to my advantage. I guess that’s why I didn’t come across to her as such a nerd. Who knows, if I had been aware of a greater potential for our relationship that first year, I would have been free to act like my usual nerdish self, and the alternative for us becoming a couple might have never materialized. But, still, freedom is the awareness of alternatives and the ability to choose.

The range of our personal freedom is also contingent upon our ability to choose. Here I speak of more than just being psychologically capable of making a decision. I am talking about assuming responsibility for a full awareness of the choices we make in life. It is a superficial understanding of freedom that sees freedom and responsibility as opposites. Children, for instance, might think that a Saturday without the responsibility of doing homework, making up their bed, and taking out the garbage would be a Saturday of real freedom. Come to think of it, so would I! Actually, a better word than freedom for the absence of responsibility would be license. Freedom, at least in the deep existential sense in which I am speaking, and responsibility are completely interrelated concepts. They are interdependent ways of looking at the same thing. Even the word, responsible, speaks to this. If we are free to respond to something, then we are response-able, or responsible. To be response-able, a person must have reached a level of independence that enables him/her to function in a loving, responsible manner when circumstances do not always go his/her way, rather than being reactive and functioning in an instinctual, dependent way. By dependent, I mean that someone who is reactive has to do something to someone else to make them feel better, such as complain, or seek pseudo-alliances against someone else (what systems people call triangulation).

Let me give you a personal example where I caught myself engaging in such behavior, and how I eventually managed to learn to function more independently. I am indebted to the wife of the pastor of a Christian church that I used to attend for making me aware of this interrelationship of responsibility and freedom. I complained to her one time that it disturbed me how our church always used Styrofoam cups and plates at our Wednesday night suppers. Being one of those “Earth People” as I was occasionally derisively called, made me aware that the use of plastic and Styrofoam was considered environmentally incorrect. She pointed out to me that, rather than complain, I could set an example for the rest of the congregation by using real china and drinking out of a real glass. I had the freedom to do as I wanted to, I just had to take the responsibility for washing the glass and plate afterward. So, for the remainder of my five years in that community, I faithfully used a glass and a china plate and washed them afterward. I had the ability to respond in a favorable way to the situation. This response was, I hope, more constructive and exhibited more integrity than just my exercising my right to complain. Now, I cannot say that there was a great groundswell of support for my efforts or that the church as a whole changed its behavior. But people did notice, and even question me about it, and that led to some interesting and constructive conversations. More important, I came to see my more independent way of functioning in this situation as a spiritual practice, one that I continue to this day. Freedom is the awareness of alternatives and the ability to choose. We live in a country where we have the right to complain when we see oppressive forces at work. We can speak out when we see our government and our institutions acting unjustly. However, when all we do is complain and avoid the responsibility that comes when we take action and seek real involvement in the issue, we are not only giving up our responsibility, we are also giving up our freedom to that entity that is doing the oppressing. It was this giving up of freedom that Eric Fromm spoke of in his study of the rise of Naziism and its authority structures in his book entitled Escape from Freedom. You also hear echoes of this theme in Einstein’s statement when he was asked what led to the travesties of World War II, “The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.” To only complain is a severe limitation on the claim of freedom. Can we not also ask ourselves, “What other alternatives are available to us in this situation, and which ones do we have the ability to choose?”

The basic step in achieving personal freedom is “choosing one’s self.” In contemplating this phrase of Kierkegaard, choosing one’s self, I was again reminded of that fellow on the island. We laugh at him because we recognize ourselves in him. In accord with our own tendencies, he changed churches because he could not be happy with the way things were at the first one – even when that church was only made up of structures and ways of being that he had created himself. He knew that he had to change and choose a new self, to grow and to mature. So he moved on. He found a new place, and perhaps a new perspective from which to worship. Freedom is the awareness of alternatives and the ability to choose.

As you carry out your own free and responsible search for truth and meaning and are growing and developing in your own ways, what issues are inviting your response? To which of the problems confronting our society and our community of faith do you have the ability and the resolve to devote your time, talents, and energy in order to make a difference?

Perhaps it is something making headlines on the social justice front, such as racial or gender discrimination, or the right to marry. These are issues of great need, and worthy of our efforts. Many in our congregation are exercising their freedom and responsibility to make a difference in these areas.

It doesn’t have to be some grand and magnificent cause, and you do not have to come at it like Joan of Arc. It can be something small and unobtrusive. You can find the heightened awareness of life, a heightened sense of the possibilities that come with freedom right here in this congregation. Whenever you see something done in such a way that tempts you to complain, there is your opportunity. Rather than just reacting from your limbic system (you know, that part of your brain that makes your heart race and raises the hair on your neck and gets you in that fight or flight mode), pause long enough to ask yourself if you can function in an independent way and respond lovingly and reasonably. Go to the director of the committee in charge of that activity and volunteer to help. I am now one of those directors, and I can promise you that you will not be turned away.

There are such needs, right here. And the freedom you have to give of your time and talents will be welcomed. Freedom is the awareness of alternatives and the ability to choose. Freedom is not a God given right or something that you accrue just because of where you were born. In the realm of personal freedom, it is totally up to you. It is totally your responsibility whether or not you live in the land of the free.