Free for All


Manage episode 166776372 series 1318266
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I was 22, nursing a broken heart, and I knew for sure that I had to get out of town.

I had just bought my first car, a little blue Honda Civic, hoping to break free from the constraints of the Boulder bus system, robust as I now realize it is. Any of you who have stood in the snow waiting for a bus that is behind schedule, and watched person after person pass by in the warmth and safety of their cars, you know just what I mean. Owning a car after not having one—now there is a story of liberation.

In any case, the sources of my broken heart were multiple. My grandfather, whom I had grown up close to, had just died, and my father was wandering around calling himself an orphan with a kind of bitterness profoundly uncharacteristic for the eternal optimist we had known, and none of us knew how to respond. Meanwhile, an intimate relationship I had come to Boulder to pursue was reaching an end, as I watched her falling in love with someone new. And then a dear friend back in the Northwest was struggling with depression, and watching him descend into despair made me feel helpless and stuck.

Most of all, I was lonely and trying to grow up, trying to find my place in this world.

Up until that point in my life, I had set foot in precisely four other states outside of my home state of Washington: just Oregon, California, Hawaii and my new state of Colorado—as well as the bit of Canada that was 17 miles from my hometown. We weren’t the kind of family that went on road trips, or vacations at all for that matter. And so when I started to map out where I would go to get out of town, regardless of the direction I took, it was a given that it would put me into unknown, unexplored territory.

I decided I would go visit my best friend who at the time was studying acting at the Old Globe in San Diego. I chose a route that would take me across western Colorado, into southern Utah and then Nevada, through the desert of Southern California. I know, it’s no backpacking trip around Europe or yoga intensive in India, but for me the path I set felt radical, terrifying, and liberating.

Liberation hit me most fully, in fact, about six hours into the journey, in southern Utah, just a bit northwest of Moab. Outside my car windows in every direction was terrain I had never even imagined existed—topography utterly distant from the rain forests and inland beaches of my growing up, and just as different from the flatirons of the Rockies I had more recently discovered. There were layers of red rocks, arches, dry desert air, trees and plants sparse if at all, mostly grass that swayed in the breeze, winding rivers cutting a path through the rock, the sky so big and luxurious.

The beauty so overwhelmed me I had to pull over. (It was before smart phones—there was no posting to say Look at this with me, no connecting immediately with people I knew to say I am here.)

I felt alone and small, and yet at the same time powerful and capable and profoundly connected to everything and everyone past, present, future. The wind hit my hair and everything felt possible. The sun was about to set, and its colors went everywhere, and as I stood between its light and its shadow I could feel my heart starting to re-group. I felt grateful, and free.

Free. Liberated. We use these words so much in our culture and in our religious tradition, but what do we really mean when we describe someone—including ourselves—as free? What are we saying we value when we talk about liberation?

And just as importantly, what is it that we are being made free from? What are those things that keep us metaphorically or sometimes literally imprisoned?

I asked friends on Facebook to tell me about their moments of liberation and I got a list of responses. They shared stories of becoming free from debt, being released from self-limiting beliefs, freed from fear or from the “shoulds” of life, freed from pleasing other people. They told me about being liberated from past religious beliefs, from the limbo of experiencing physical symptoms by finally receiving an official diagnosis, from eating disorders, from societal pressures to look or dress a certain way. Indeed, a chorus of voices rejoiced at being liberated near the end of each day from restrictive clothing many of us wear.

I bet each of us has a whole list of other things we have been liberated from, or wish we could be: addiction, depression, rage, unemployment, unhealthy or broken relationships, shame, domestic violence, prejudice both personal and systemic, fear, past trauma, ignorance, pride, self-doubt, selfishness—or selflessness, poverty, perfectionism…. The list could go on and on.

For many of us, discovering Unitarian Universalism could be described as a moment of liberation. Released from ill-fitting dogmatic and creedal requirements, we arrive into this covenantal faith and savor every moment of that free and responsible search for truth and meaning affirmed by our Fourth Principle.

In my story, standing there on the edge of a red rock canyon and beneath the limitless sky, I felt myself becoming free from bitterness, released from disappointment, liberated from grief.

These are the prisons of our spirits, the prisons of our lives; and the spiritual path invites us into a lifelong journey of liberation. It urges us to be made free from all that would separate us from our truest selves, from one another, from the great spirit of life which connects us all.

I say lifelong journey for two main reasons. First, because many things are not easily overcome. Sometimes they take whole lifetimes, and even that is not always long enough. Some prisons we’ll go to our grave attempting to escape, and then leave them behind for others to take on for us. We inherit dreams from our ancestors, but we inherit their burdens, too, the shackles from which they could not find release.

And secondly, this path is lifelong because new things arrive to block the way to freedom all along this path of life. Get one prison behind you, and it never fails—a new one appears.

Our job then, as a religious community, is to help each other discover these oppressive things, to help name them as forces keeping us from experiencing freedom, and then to help each other create and actually follow a path of liberation. We are—in so many ways—each other’s saviors.

But let’s step back for a moment. I just said that this is the work of a lifetime. I said that sometimes we don’t even know that we are bound, that we need help to see oppressive forces around us, that sometimes you can try all your life and still not be free. Given all this, we have to wonder why anyone would take on such a task. What makes liberation a worthy pursuit? What makes freedom matter?

Or to say it another way, regardless of what we are being made free from, what are we made free for?

Although we can likely come up with a long list of things we imagine we could be freed from, we often boil down our answer about what we are freed for to something pretty singular—individual self-determination. We are free for personal, individualized choice.

How free you are relates directly to how much you are able to act according to your own will, your own desires. Many of our stories of liberation are told this way. Individuals who have been restricted from being themselves, from acting according to their own will are liberated into self-determination. The civil rights movement is often told as a story of self-determination. Queer liberation, too. Individuals are freed from being told how to be and think and feel so they can then act, think and feel for themselves.

And yet, if liberation is only a matter of allowing each of us to act according to our own individualized will, only to enable greater personal choice, imagine it taken to its ultimate expression. How isolated we must imagine ourselves to be when so “free.” How lonely such a world would be. How unsustainable.

When I go back to the story I shared earlier, I know that some of the freedom I experienced related to a sense of personal choice. But that was a small part of what I was really made free for. I was made free for new relationships, for new love. I was released from my past and liberated into a new future. And that future was not free because I was independent, but because I could openly—freely—receive it as it unfolded before me.

Liberation is not just about individual choice, but about creative capacity, about resilience, and about depth of resources. Which is to say that liberation is less about any one of us individually than about who we are together.

Returning to the stories I collected on Facebook, friends shared that they were made free for living according to their commitments and to their values, liberated into a greater intimacy with friends in a shared vulnerability, released into a deeper love for this world in all its challenge and possibility.

It is perhaps a great irony that we are liberated simply so that we can tie ourselves down more fully to our most deeply held commitments.

While we may release ourselves from one kind of prison, if we wish to surrender more fully into freedom and joy we must bind ourselves in other ways. Bind ourselves in relationship, bind ourselves to our values, bind ourselves to a people, to a hope, to a vision of the world and its future we give ourselves in partnership to create.

This paradox of liberation as both personal autonomy and deepened commitments resides in the words from Martin Buber that are inscribed on my ordination stole—that we are “promise-making, promise-breaking, promise-renewing creatures.” Human life is given its fullest expression in the tension between our need to satisfy our individual self-expression and the acknowledgment that we are meant to be free for something more than ourselves.

We often describe Unitarian Universalism as a free faith, which we usually take as an indicator of our personal autonomy. Understanding liberation as both personal autonomy and future flourishing allows us to better integrate that we are not simply a free faith, but also a covenantal faith.

In our faith, as in our personal relationships of covenant, we choose to restrict our individual autonomy because we affirm a different sort of freedom, a freedom that allows us all to flourish, a freedom that fosters our mutual future, a freedom that means fulfilling our mostly deeply held commitments, our sacred promises in partnership with others. A freedom that is about all of us surrendering to joy, together.

This is the hope of liberation. In our faith, and in our lives, as in the world, let us faithfully pursue the promise of freedom, together.

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