Liberty and its Limitations

Thanksgiving ranks right up there with the 4th of July as a quintessentially American holiday. We gather to give thanks to the God who, while allowing us each maximum free will, has managed to bless and protect this most unusual country. You see, freedom is God's idea, so it makes a great deal of sense that He would smile upon a nation dedicated to His concept. Let us during this Thanksgiving take some time to think about liberty, appreciate its largess and the limits that sustain it. May He continue to bless you and yours.  Happy Thanksgiving.  

“This is a free country.” 

“I can say whatever I want.” 

“I have the right to do anything I like.” 

“You can’t tell me what to do.”  I hear these statements in the halls at school, on TV in the evenings, on the radio on the way home, and I find myself wondering: can a nation full of people who don’t know what freedom is continue to be free?  I’m so very afraid not. 

Freedom is not an absolute.  No one is absolutely free.  I can’t just decide to levitate above the back-packed hordes in the hallways.  Or just because I had such a grand time at a party, I can’t rocket back in time to enjoy it all over again. I can’t sing an aria. 

I’d like to do all those things – I can just see the looks on all those young faces as I straddle my broom, rise silently to just below the ceiling, and jet off down the hall, swerving to miss the florescent lights. Students here have long suspected me of belonging in a Harry Potter movie, anyway, so why not? 

Law, that’s why.  Scientific law won’t allow it.  I can’t go back to the party because time only moves forward. (This is a useful law since many of us more timid souls would spend our lives huddled comfortably in our baby cribs; we know what’s out there in the real world and we want none of it).  I would dearly love to sing, really sing, not just struggle to match pitch and pray the melody won’t soar above my measly three-note range.  But alas.  Natural law again.  Both genetics (none of the women in my family tree can sing) and physics combine to rob me of that privilege. We are all subject to natural law. We suffer consequences if we attempt to disobey it; the Darwin Awards recognize those who were rash enough to ignore it.


We are also subject to social law, to moral law.  Social laws have nothing to do with the law of the land.  Congress doesn’t pass them; the president doesn’t sign them.  But here too we suffer consequences if we don’t follow those laws.  If we fail to send a thank you note for a gift, that giver may stop giving. If we’re caught spreading gossip about a “friend,” she’s likely to retaliate by blabbing a few choice tidbits from our own top-secret files.  If a woman runs off with someone else’s husband, she shouldn’t be surprised when said husband runs off with the next woman.  What goes around comes around. Consequences.

Now, it’s true that social or moral laws change more than scientific laws (which aren’t, strictly speaking, “laws,” but absolute statements of what actually and irrevocably is), but social laws do change ever so slightly and usually over long periods of time. We no longer need to be formally introduced to a person before he can become our friend, but we still do introduce people to each other.  Certain words are not to be said in public, yet in spite of Hollywood, and gangsta rap, only the most crude do so. (The current push for political correctness and “tolerance,” are more of an effort to force a change in human nature by means of altering the language, than an actual repealing or passing of new social law.) Each culture, at each stage of its history, has developed its own slight variations on moral rules, yet no culture exists that has none. 

Basically, the laws governing social/moral behavior are anchored in awareness and concern for our fellow man and for the welfare of the group.  No one is exempt. If our actions offend or harm someone, then we have broken a fundamental, unchanging rule, a rule carved in the stone of human history – we have failed to treat another human being the way we would like to be treated.  Granted, no police will come arrest us, there will be no trial, but chances are we will be punished, albeit unofficially, and maybe only in our own conscience, but punished nonetheless.  People who break too many social laws find themselves in fistfights on The Jerry Springer Show.  They become as much of a laughing stock as the winners of the Darwin Awards. They end up friendless, confused, often ill and isolated, and the more of us who behave in antisocial, belligerent, irresponsible ways, the more unstable and unpleasant our entire society becomes.  More consequences.

But this is a free country.  Yes, as free as they come, as free as has ever existed. We may think anything we wish, believe anything we wish.  We have freedom of religion here.  No one will execute us for joining a cult that worships Twinkies; no fines will be imposed if we decide that the true god is the queen of the anthill in our backyard.  Of course this is just judicial freedom.  Our government can’t control what God would think of all that. Let us not be confused on this issue.  We can, from our government’s point of view, believe or disbelieve what we will, but that doesn’t eliminate the possibility that God is really “out there” and that He has His druthers.  Remember the story about the golden calf?  When God found the Israelites worshipping this statue, He made them grind it up, mix it with water and drink it. The fact that our human government imposes no similar religious requirements on us does not mean that none exist, or that we can willy-nilly invent our own fairy tale and that just because we are comfortable with those ideas or believe them, that they will be true.

In fact, truth is not affected at all by whether or not we believe it; philosophical laws exist as well as scientific laws.  We can stick our intellectual noses in the air and break those laws and carry on in irrational, ideologically irresponsible ways, but many natural consequences ensue.  We become addicted to drugs, to sex, to gambling, to government subsides. 

We get depressed, anxious, or hyper-active.  We suffer heart attacks, contract diseases, sit up at night worrying.  We can travel down the think-whatever- we-want-to path, ignoring rationality and evidence so far that we lose permanently the ability or the will to perform rational thought. And our government will allow us to do that.   However, if too many of us indulge our flights of fancy, it would be hard to maintain a functional civilization. One thinks of the sacred cows of India surrounded by starving Hindus.

Yet, in spite of, and to a large extent because of, all the restrictions imposed by nature and society, we have enormous freedom. In Kurt Vonnegut’s short story Harrison Bergeron, Harrison wants to be free, “to become what [he] can become.”  That is what true freedom is – a society that promotes, by both its rules and its lack thereof, the blossoming of each and every member. 

Freedom is not a vast void of untrammeled, unguided self-indulgence. It is not the total absence of consequences; it is the carefully controlled atmosphere necessary to nurture and encourage the best in all of us and the best must be protected by rational restraint. It was Ernest Hemingway who once said, “Art begins with limitations.”  He hints here at an even larger truth; life (and freedom) begins with limitations. As long as we keep these ideas in mind we can maintain the nurturing freedom that continues to draw stifled people to this promising land.