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The Wonder Report: April 16, 2021
The Limits of Freedom
Happy Friday! We’ve made it through the end of another week. While I hope there was joy and success and happiness in many of your moments and days this week, I want to take a minute right here at the beginning to say that, for many, this week has been another one filled with tragedy. Another mass shooting is being reported here in my own state; earlier this week another unarmed black man, Daunte Wright, was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis; COVID-19 cases continue to rise even as officials rush to get shots in arms of the vaccine; and like you, I’m weary.
As we come again to explore the trope of life as a journey, this week’s topic seems particularly relevant: What limits are there, if any, to the promise of freedom that we typically associate with life on the road? Particularly as we find ourselves grieving again for a world that’s encumbered by hatred, despair, and systemic racism, it feels like it might be easier just to hit the road, to get away from it all. But the question James K.A. Smith asks in his chapter on freedom in On the Road with Saint Augustine feels especially relevant right now: What do I want when I want to be liberated?
I know what it’s like to want to be free, “unhindered by walls and, more importantly, unconstrained by ‘their’ rules, out from the hovering, watchful eye of the Man and your mom and Mr. Wilson next door.” During the summer after my sophomore year of college, I knew I needed to get away. I’d gone to college just two hours from home, and after spending my first summer break back with my parents and working for a local business, I was willing to go just about anywhere else. So I applied to work with a group doing beach ministry in Ogunquit, Maine, packed up my Chevette with clothes and books and enough snacks to last the 14-hour trip, and headed East with a couple of friends.
It was one of the worst summers of my life.
There were immediate problems with the group I was assigned to, including conflict with one particular teammate who ended up being asked to leave half-way through the summer. I also struggled to find just the right job to supplement my ministry work and ultimately took two very part-time jobs that barely allowed me to get by. And it didn’t help that I was a naive girl from the cornfields who’d spent two years at a Christian college. I wasn’t prepared for the homelessness, drug and alcohol use, and sexual freedom I encountered in the people I was there to “minister to.”
Mostly I was homesick. It wasn’t just that I missed my parents and friends, which I did desperately. I also missed myself. The freedom of the road had removed everything that made me who I was. Those cornfields, that college, the people who loved me: Who was I without them? I thought taking to the road meant I would find myself, when in fact, I started to lose myself, I was “dissolving, my own identity slipping between my fingers.”
The life I thought I needed a break from contained all the constraints that made me who I was, and who were, in fact, helping me become who I was meant to be.
Last Saturday, I returned home from a friend’s house ready for a nap, maybe some Netflix, definitely some downtime after a busy, stressful week. What happened instead was I got a phone call. A family member was in crisis. And I needed to go.
Interestingly, this particular need required a road trip. Even as I was deciding whether or not I even could go, I started pulling clothes out of the laundry basket and grabbing books from my desk. The road was calling, and in a few minutes, I not only determined I should go but was on the highway, listening through my AirPods for a texted address.
As I was driving, I thought about many of the road trips I’d taken throughout my life: the one that summer to Maine, other trips during college to Florida and Texas with friends, a road trip to Yellowstone shortly after graduation, and then that same trip exactly 20 years later with my new husband and stepsons. Sometimes I’ve “hit the road” on a plane or a train, not quite the same experience but with the same desire. To get away.
But this time was different. I wasn’t running away from something. I was running toward the people I loved.
In my young adulthood, I resented the way that family ties kept me returning home. Every time I tried to spread my wings and experience the road as life (a la Kerouac), I came to that place where I’d begin to lose myself again. I envied people with few encumbrances, people who took vacations to exotic destinations rather than to visit family. I imagined what it would be like to pick up and leave, to be completely free to make decisions about my life and career without the entanglements of relationships.
But last Saturday, as I passed through towns I’d never heard of and said “hi” to strangers in gas stations and fast food restaurants, I knew exactly who I was. I might have been on the road, but I was traveling a path forged by my relationships. For all the things that are hard and stressful about my particular life, it’s not the road that leads me away from it that brings me freedom. It’s the constraint of being loved, the boundaries of being known. It’s the perimeter marked by struggles and forgiveness and laughter that truly makes me free.
When I hear about hard things happening in the world, especially senseless violence, systemic injustices, and the ideological battles that seem to follow, I feel overwhelmed with the knowledge of these things, and implicated because I’m not doing more to stop them. I’m tempted to hit the road. And for a time, moving away from the issues, shutting down the headlines, or keeping my distance from those who are involved might feel like freedom.
But freedom isn’t just permission to excuse myself when the room gets tense. Rather it’s power to remain and get involved. It’s freedom for this moment, not freedom from it. This is Augustine’s “radically different conception of freedom that we’ve forgotten in modernity,” Smith writes.
“Such freedom doesn’t expand with the demolishing of boundaries or the evisceration of constraints; rather, it flourishes when a good will is channeled toward the Good by constraints that are gifts … it’s an invitation to a life that is secure enough to risk, centered enough to be courageous, like the rails of a roller coaster that let you do loop after loop.”
Ultimately, freedom is about grace, and the “Christian life is a pilgrimage of hope.” And as it turns out, “being free isn’t about leaving; it’s about being found.”
While it may seem counterintuitive, the direction freedom sends me these days is into smaller corners, quieter conversations, deeper relationships, and closer quarters. Over the past year, I’ve discovered that the map I’ve been using to navigate this world was drawn inaccurately. I can’t trust it anymore for traveling highways and visiting far away places. But I can keep walking the paths closest to me, letting the curves and contours of here—just right here—become familiar to my soul again.
Augustine experienced this too, ultimately finding God waiting for him after he finally returned from the road: “You alone are always present even to those who have taken themselves far from you. And you gently wipe away their tears, and they weep yet more and rejoice through their tears … Where was I when I was seeking for you? You were there before me, but I had departed from myself.”
Here is where God has me, and though I resist it, right here is where I’m the most free.
What do you want when you want to be liberated?
This question from the subtitle of James K.A. Smith’s Freedom chapter feels like the perfect question for our time. We all want to be free from something. But what do we want freedom for?
Some of us have real chains that keep us tied down in an otherwise free society. I talked above about racism and other systemic injustices, and when people cry out for freedom from those things, it reminds me that this is liberation we should all be working toward. This is freedom for justice; this is using the power of our constraints to achieve equity for all.
Here’s the challenge: Using Augustine’s “radically different conception of freedom” that’s “an invitation to a life that is secure enough to risk, centered enough to be courageous” what does freedom mean for you? And within the “gift” of constraints, what do you want freedom for in your own life?
More specifically, take some time to journal about whatever it is that you feel is holding you back in this season of life. In what ways can you find freedom within those boundaries?
This and That
Here are a few articles, essays, and more to give you hope, to make you think, to grow your faith, and as always, to help root you in love.
1. America Has Pandemic Senioritis by Amanda Mull for The Atlantic. If you’ve ever experienced senioritis as a high school or college senior, then you know that feeling is very much tied to wanting to be free of the constraints of school and teachers and rules. “Senioritis comes from reaching the end stages of the lengthy work necessary to achieve a difficult—and often not altogether voluntary—goal. (Sound familiar?),” Mull writes. Unfortunately, in a pandemic, the “laziness, or flakiness, or riskiness” of senioritis might just be dangerous.
From the essay: “Taking a nation’s behavioral temperature can be a bit tricky, but data are beginning to show that even people who have stuck to safety protocols for much of the pandemic are getting antsy and letting things slip. In a March poll, Gallup found that only 46 percent of unvaccinated Americans who intended to get a shot were still mostly or completely isolating. That was a 12-point drop from January—a much larger change in activity than even that of the newly vaccinated. This shift comes as COVID-19 cases have once again begun to rise in many places in the United States; even as the country vaccinates millions of people a day, the danger of the pandemic has not yet subsided for the majority of people. Nonetheless, more Americans are traveling, salons and spas have started to book up, and many restaurants are desperate to rehire workers to meet increased demand.”
2. Nature is good for you. That doesn’t mean we should prescribe it by Jeremy Mynott for Psyche. I love the nuance of this article that takes seemingly straight-forward advice—”being in nature is good for you mentally and physically”—and turning it on its head. Mynott asks a lot of questions, like what part of nature is good for us, is nature actually "necessary for healthfulness, and what do we even mean by “nature”? But his argument ends up sounding a lot like our discussion of freedom: Nature isn’t just an escape from something but a place we go for something—something we might not find if we look too hard.
From the essay: “The authors of the ‘nature cure’ books were discovering that nature could offer some balm for their ills. But, to find that relief, they had to attend directly to what they could see, hear, touch or smell; and then, if they were lucky, the psychological and other benefits might follow. It’s a corner-of-the-eye thing. There’s no point in putting beauty, wonder, inspiration, understanding and the other positive experiences we rightly associate with nature on some sort of ‘to do’ list. They are what philosophers call ‘supervenient’ on the experiences themselves. Try too hard and you’ll fail.”
3. How to Start Healing Racial Trauma: Identify and Treat Both Root and Symptom by Sheila Wise Rowe for Christianity Today’s “The Better Samaritan” column. Rowe is a counselor, teacher, and advocate for racial trauma healing, and this essay is adapted from her award-winning book Healing Racial Trauma. She begins by sharing some of her own story of racial trauma and explains more about the journey toward freedom from racism and racial oppression.
From the essay: “My invitation to people of color is that you experience your own life story affirmed and acquire new solidarity with other people of color. Also that you obtain tools to help heal your racial trauma and to persevere on the road to resilience. My invitation to white folks is to be open to however these stories challenge you to be a better friend and ally to people of color. Perhaps you will hear echoes of your own trauma that you need to address. My hope is to lead you to greater empathy and activism.”
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“It is a wholesome and necessary thing for us to turn again to the earth and in the contemplation of her beauties to know the sense of wonder and humility.” — Rachel Carson
Check out this new section for tips and tricks about exploring nature in this section.
Nature is an interesting classroom when it comes to freedom and constraint.
We often go to the woods because we want to be free from the modern constraints of technology. We want to live our way, on our own terms. We want a taste of the wild. I think of Thoreau, who famously went to the woods because he wanted to “live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
While at times we experience nature as calm and peaceful, beautiful and free, it can also be, alternately, hot or cold, hard or slick, wet or dry, prickly or scratchy. Sometimes nature is even poisonous, dangerous, and treacherous. Our parks and preserves tame the experience of nature for us so that we rarely see how powerless we really are to nature’s fury.
But that doesn’t mean we stop experiencing nature. In fact, I think the best way to understand the natural world is to experience it regularly, to be outside in all seasons and in all weather, to go to the same spots repeatedly and observe what changes. But also to prepare and protect ourselves from the wildness of nature that can harm and injure us.
One resource I’d highly recommend to help you become a better student of nature is John Muir Laws’ book, The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling. Even if you aren’t into nature journaling, Laws offers great tips for observing plants, animals, birds, and more, and he also offers some great questions to ask yourself when you’re outside exploring.
One of my greatest joys is to encourage writers as they hone their craft, develop their voice, and live a meaningful writing life. Here are some tips, insights, prompts, and more to help you as you write.
I wrote this post about creative constraints years ago for Tweetspeak Poetry, but I thought it was perfect for this week’s topic. So I’m digging it out of the archives and sharing it in its entirety below:
Reading about one woman’s decision to create a uniform for herself in her work as an art director at an ad agency got me thinking about the importance of constraints in our creative lives. I began to imagine how freeing it would be to rid my mind of the daily decision of what to wear and how that energy could be redirected to push further into the creative work I do as a writer and editor. When I posted the link on Facebook, others affirmed my theory. “How simple this would make life, ” one friend said. “What a weight this would lift, ” said another. And, “Her logic makes sense!”
Viva la limits! I practically screamed at the laptop, as I began surfing for the perfect combination to concoct my own new uniform. I have been struggling to balance my workload and maneuver between my more creative work and the more straightforward tasks of my job. If reducing complexity would mean more streamlined productivity, then I wouldn’t stop with my wardrobe. We could eat the same food every day, shop at the same stores, watch the same shows on television. What else?
I couldn’t help but think of the simple sociological study I had read about years earlier that set out to determine the effects a fence around a playground would have on preschool children. The same group of children was taken to two playgrounds: one with a fence and one without. Here’s how researchers described the results: “The overwhelming conclusion was that with a given limitation, children felt safer to explore a playground. Without a fence, the children were not able to see a given boundary or limit and thus were more reluctant to leave the caregiver. With a boundary, in this case the fence, the children felt at ease to explore the space. They were able to separate from the caregiver and continue to develop in their sense of self while still recognizing that they were in a safe environment within the limits of the fence.” Of course writers and other artists aren’t preschoolers, but the application to creative life seemed obvious.
In fact, so many experts have lately begun extolling the virtues of constrained creativity that “working inside the box” is the new “thinking outside the box.” From time limits to word limits to resource limits, articles like this one from Fast Company actually suggest imposing limits on oneself in order to bust through writer’s block or move toward greater creative heights.
In his TED Talk, artist Phil Hansen describes new levels of artistry he accomplished once he learned to live with a neurological tremor in his hands, a condition he previously thought would end his career.
“Limitations may be the most unlikely of places to harness creativity, but perhaps one of the best ways to get ourselves out of ruts, rethink categories and challenge accepted norms, ” Hansen said. “And instead of telling each other to seize the day, maybe we can remind ourselves every day to seize the limitation.”
Yes. Seize the limitation. That’s what I thought a uniform would accomplish. But then, I read a few more of the comments in that Facebook thread.
“I would hate it, ” one woman said. “It would stifle my creativity … I’d also feel like a part of my self expression would die.” And then this: “I would doubt the creativity of an art director who was too lazy to dress with some flair. I know a lot of male art directors. They don’t wear the typical male ‘uniform’ either.”
While I was off building a fence around my own creativity, others were tearing the fences down around theirs. Limits can foster ingenuity and imagination, but they also apparently can stifle them. How do we balance the two?
A few weekends ago, my husband and I visited the Dream Cars: Innovative Design, Visionary Ideas exhibit at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. I entered the exhibit not really knowing much about concept cars and marveled at the shapes and features that seemed entirely impractical for actual highway driving: wheel covers that turned with the wheels, designs mimicking insects, see-through roofs, aerodynamics gone wild.
Who would actually drive one of these? I thought as we walked around snapping photos and marveling at the high gloss and extravagant details. Then I read more about the exhibit, about the purpose of concept cars. “The experimental, concept, or ‘dream’ car has long been a dynamic tool that allows designers to showcase and demonstrate forward-thinking automotive design ideas, ” one exhibit placard said. “Concept cards were not vehicles the public typically could purchase, but rather the testing ground for innovations that might find expression in automobiles purchased years, or even decades, later.”
In other words, concept cars were designed and created by people who refused to accept limits. I saw this same element of limit-pushing when we walked up one floor to the museum’s new acquisitions of cutting-edge fashion. When I started to ask, “Who would actually wear something like this?” it hit me. No one but runway models would don these dramatic fashions made with unusual materials and sporting features like deeply plunging necklines or unusual shapes that transformed the wearer’s body type. Just like no one would drive a dream car to work each day. But that wasn’t the point. In both cases, the designers were experimenting, questioning commonly accepted norms, thinking outside that proverbial box I was trying to climb back into.
The result? They didn’t erase the boundaries. They expanded them. And not just for themselves. That car modeled after a bug? That’s today’s minivan. The floor length polyester dress? That’s now the maxi skirt hanging in my closet. When anyone pushes against a limit, we all benefit. Without the existence of boundaries in the first place, they wouldn’t have known where to push. It’s like Phil Hansen said about his own artistic process: “It really became a moment of clarification for me that we need to first be limited in order to become limitless.”
It’s probably true that we all work within some limits; if nothing else, time is the one great constraint we all have in common. But most of us recognize many other limits in our lives, too. And we share a great many of those with others. Accepting our limits—or even imposing limits on ourselves—and working within them can be a great source of creative inspiration.
But occasionally, we all need to design our own version of a dream car, to climb over the fence or back out of the box, maybe even brush past the people crowding around the edge and see what’s just beyond.
I’m still thinking about the uniform, but I’m also thinking about buying a new car. And I have no doubt I’ll recognize elements in each that were once considering cutting edge.
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