October 30, 2020

Are we really free?

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Are any of us really free? If you think you are what has this freedom got you? A mortgage? An unfulfilling job and a confused relationship? Environmental and social degradation? Our freedom has brought us high youth suicide rates and equally high levels of substance abuse? Chronic levels of depression, alienation and a culture industry that is largely bankrupt, caught in a materialist loop that offers escape from reality rather than commitment to it? Yearnings that seem illusive and cannot be framed in current language because the language for such deep aspirations is absent from the current personal, social and cultural context?

Totalitarianism has been tried many times and it essentially fails because human beings will in all ways subvert a singular narrative that is imposed by force. The fates of the totalitarian states of the last century illustrate this. Look what is happening in the Middle East now? Authority, the power to dominate the minds and bodies of humanity, has solved this problem by creating and dispersing a more crippling form of freedom.

This crippling freedom, embedded in a mix of popular aspirations that are inherently conservative and fearful, lead not to the purported goals of happiness and personal agency and fulfillment but to an arid apathy anchored to a narrow and paralysing selfishness.

Elie Wiesel, the celebrated Nobel Peace prize winner in his Nobel Prize Lecture entitled ‘Hope, Despair and Memory’ said, “If someone had told us in 1945 that in our lifetime religious wars would rage on virtually every continent, that thousands of children would once again be dying of starvation, we would not have believed it. Or that racism and fanaticism would flourish once again, we would not have believed it…” In an interview with Time Magazine he stated that the two most important dangers for humanity at present were hatred and indifference. The needed antidote to this condition he claimed was hope. “Hope, even in hopeless times, needs to be invented.”

Hope, however, is elusive and needs to be nurtured. It does not spring up sui generis and Wiesel would be the first to admit that his roots in Jewish mysticism are the source of his “hopefulness”. This is what he had to say: “I believe mysticism is a very serious endeavor. One must be equipped for it. One doesn’t study calculus before studying arithmetic. In my tradition, one must wait until one has learned a lot of Bible and Talmud and the Prophets to handle mysticism. This isn’t instant coffee. There is no instant mysticism.”

Freedom gets in the way of this rootedness in tradition and this is why so many non-western societies are either suspicious of western democracy or out right antagonistic towards it. Mysticism is grounded in tradition, clothed in the language and actions of the present, and set ever before us all as we struggle into the future. It is the perennial source of hope.

Traditions are sources of deep transformative power. There are five things you will find at the heart of all traditions be they overtly spiritual such as Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism or Indigenous spirituality; or more secular varieties such as humanism and romanticism.

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