All Commentary
Thursday, November 1, 1973

The Cry for Freedom Is the Scream of Nature


Mr. O’Connell, experienced in public relations and trade association activities, refers to himself as a “compulsive writer.”

From helplessness in infancy, man works toward intellectual fulfillment and personal freedom, finds himself confused as he pursues his dreams, and in his emotional confusion he questions his own reasoning capacity, his will, and even life itself. Going full cycle, he arrives at an adult stage when he feels as powerless as an infant.

Seeking truth, man finds falsehood. Seeking goodness he finds evil. Seeking beauty he finds ugliness. Seeking contentment he finds frustration. Seeking peace he finds war. Seeking love he finds hate. Seeking friends he finds enemies. Expecting the best he finds the worst. Yet when he expects the worst he frequently comes face to face with the best. In search of answers he finds only additional questions.

The man in search of himself wants more than merely to be’ conceived, born, live, and die. He does not live for survival alone. The bare essentials of life do not fulfill his restless spirit. He wants more. In his passion for more he finds that when he gets what he wants it fails to satisfy him. When he relieves himself of a worry, he immediately finds a new one to dwell on; and when he achieves a goal, he soon replaces it with another. Man is not even content with contentment. It bores him. This restless striving not only accompanies our nature, it reflects the essence of our nature, and is tied in with the will to live.

When our foot moves toward the ant he scurries to escape the shadow that signals his extinction. So too with man, and more so. Man not only reacts to specific threats of death; he even fears death when it does not directly threaten him. We possess the-urge to-live in the highest degree, and yet we also have within us a potential for self-destruction which is not evident in lower creatures. Rather than just live and die we play at living and gamble with dying.

The Options Available, Including Suicide

We sometimes forget the extent of our freedom. We may choose to live or choose to die or accept a living death. We are free in spite of limitations placed on us by government or business or other external sources. Even a slave is free to think individual thoughts, and even a slave is free to choose whether or not he wishes to continue to live in his subservient condition. Suicide may seem like no choice at all for most of us, but when life seems intolerable some men do exercise their ultimate alternative and terminate their own existences. Suicide is an extreme but valid example of free will, but a more widespread example is the urge to live. Because most of us treasure life with all its difficulties, we feel that men who lose hope and commit suicide are demented. We would rather choose life with all its contradictions than choose the other alternative.

The urge to live implies freedom on the natural level. Our belief in the necessity of freedom is exemplified in a negative way in our treatment of criminals. We relieve criminals of their freedom. We fear imprisonment because we fear the explicit loss of our freedom, but our less obvious contact with freedom can lead us into slavery if we take it too much for granted. If we allow government to chip away at our freedom we may experience a rude future awakening which brings home the shocking reality that what we believed was a massive iceberg of freedom has been reduced to the size of an ice cube in a cocktail glass. The maintenance of freedom demands constant vigilance. The man who forgets that he is free soon finds himself a slave. Freedom is one of those ideals that we never achieve fully, yet if we only come close it is worth the effort.

Anomalies of Freedom

In our desire to find freedom we often lose it. The man who goes into business for himself in order to be free soon learns that clients can be as tyrannical as bosses. The man who wants the freedom of leading rather than following soon learns that leaders are in many ways as servile as their followers. The quest for freedom usually ends in compromise. We are apt to confuse the appearance of freedom with the actuality of it because freedom is as much a state of mind as it is a state of actual existence. Does a man exercise his freedom by wearing long hair and avoiding baths? To equate freedom with externals such as hair and clothing is as much a mistake for the rebel as it is for the middle class citizen. Both fall into the category of conformists.

The free man is frustrated by both middle class conformity and rebel conformity. He does not look to the group for his freedom; he looks within himself. The man who values his individual freedom knows that the group protesting in the name of personal freedom is apt to indulge itself in new forms of group tyranny if it achieves any measure of power. Given enough power, a crusading group will switch from a cry for freedom to a demand for conformity. The free man does not lightly surrender his personal freedom to any group because he knows that groups are simply gatherings of rational-emotional humans like himself, with potential for both good and evil.

Leaders Tend to Extremes

The leaders of any emotional movement or crusade are usually extremists by nature. They tend to be slaves to their own fixations and their aim in life is not so much to live freely according to the highest dictates of their own natures, but to inflict their confused ideas of righteousness on other men. We should be wary of the loud man who promises us freedom. His idea of freedom may resemble our idea of slavery.

Freedom involves conscience, and conscience is strictly an individual matter. “Conscience is the soul of freedom,” said Thomas Merton, “its eyes, its energy, its life. Without conscience, freedom never knows what to do with itself. And a rational being who does not know what to do with himself finds the tedium of life unbearable. He is literally bored to death.” The man who disregards conscience in his search for freedom will also disregard it when he attains his goal. His so-called freedom will become licentiousness aimed at appeasing and easing his own boredom. An extremist who achieves his goal does not suddenly stop being an extremist; he simply substitutes one set of ambitions for another. Extremists are not as interested in freedom as they are in power. Their prime motivating force is personal ambition at the expense of their followers. The extremist in search of power usually claims that there are simple answers for complex problems. In so doing he displays his basic ignorance of the contradictory nature of humanity. There are no simple answers to complex life problems.

Seeds of Prejudice

The civil rights movement is impaled on the horns of a dilemma. The minority which tries to mix itself into the so-called melting pot of society spawns prejudice, and the minority which insists on separatism triggers prejudice. Minority man is compromised by his own minority status. In his search for freedom he threatens larger minorities who are still insecure, and in his bid for advancement he lays himself open to backlash prejudice rising out of the irrational fears of ignorant men. If minority man utilizes violence as a tool to draw attention to his problems, he not only draws attention, he sparks repression. When carried to extremes, violent protest is inevitably self-destructive.

Respect for oneself and for one’s fellow man are not likely to be achieved through violent disregard for the lives and rights of others. The violent protester thrashes out at what he considers to be his enemy, but his enemy is not a specific group of men; it is human nature itself. Minority man’s desire for freedom conflicts with majority man’s urge to be superior. Minority man himself, once he attains a higher status, will perversely ignore the rights of the next group of underdogs. The plight of minorities in states governed by majorities is a frustrating one, but the transition from slavery to toleration to brotherhood has never been easy. It has always been a battle fought on the battlefield of contradiction and paradox. The restless urge to improve one’s lot is as normal as the urge to live, but in a disorderly world where truth is true only sometimes and men are as emotional as they are rational, high expectations tend to breed intense aggravations.

Man Must Seek Freedom

Minority man’s outcry for freedom is not a question with no answer. The cry for freedom is the scream of nature, and a minority man’s most tragic contradiction would be to stifle the shouting of his soul. He must seek freedom, but freedom is so contradictory that when it seems to be at hand it will slip away, and when it seems to be slipping away it will be at hand. The elusive ideal that we call freedom is similar to the ideal of happiness and contentment. The achievement of one kind of freedom usually brings with it a new kind of slavery. For every gain, we must accept some kind of loss. In the ranks of persecuted men, there often exists a freedom to laugh for the sake of laughing, sing for the sake of singing, and love for the sake of loving. Such freedom strangely diminishes when persecution ceases. In the ranks of free appearing men, who seem on the surface to be achieving the better things of life, there often exists a lack of humor and spontaneity. In his pursuit of culture the free man has a tendency to make himself a slave to group opinions. Under a free exterior we can find a slave mentality, and under a servile exterior we can find mental freedom. The ideal combination would be a blend of internal and external freedom.

The key to freedom is the word “voluntary.” The man who is free is tuned in to the wave length of his own nature. He operates according to his conscience, and although he respects his fellow man, he does not ask other men to resolve his dilemmas. His own solutions may create more dilemmas ad infinitum, but it is better to have one’s own choices backfire than to be misled by other men. The important thing is not to relinquish the freedom to make personal choices. Men who make their own choices seldom lack self-respect. The man who respects himself and believes in the need for personal freedom has no undue fear of other men attempting to reach his level of humanity. Even though he is aware of the contradictions of freedom, he respects the desire of other men to be free… even if their newfound freedom makes slaves out of them.

Free or Equal

The desire to be free is sometimes confused with the desire to be equal. Spinoza said, “He who seeks equality between unequals seeks an absurdity.” Such a remark need not be classified as cynical. If we treasure our individuality we should be prepared to accept our inequality. Voltaire, in attempting to arrive at an appropriate notion of equality, said, “Those who say that all men are equal speak the greatest truth if they mean that all men have an equal right to liberty, to the possession of their goods, and to the protection of the laws.” Voltaire considered equality “natural when it is limited to rights, unnatural when it attempts to level goods and powers.” The liberty that Voltaire referred to is the freedom to live according to one’s nature as long as the rights of others are respected. Voltaire was enough of a realist to see that an attempt for total equality would be an impossible and inhuman ideal.

We will never achieve equality among men because we are a collection of human individuals who vary greatly from one another and will continue to do so. We are hard put to find our own rational or emotional twin because each of us has a distinct nature distinguishable from that of any other human on this planet. To cheer for individual liberty and freedom and then demand equality is a gross contradiction. In our world we find similarities and likenesses but we do not find total identities and total equalities. Our notion of equality is similar to our notion of perfection. It is a notion and nothing more. To equate people or things with one another is a contradictory pursuit. Since we cannot actually be one another, we must be content to recognize our differences and respect them rather than attempt to subdue them. The essence of our individual humanity lies in our differences.

Inequalities Abound

Life is filled with inequalities. From youth we are aware that our own particular body has a certain size and a limited strength. We are aware of our own rational and emotional characteristics and how they differ from the attributes of others. The wise man accepts his strengths and weaknesses and tries to live accordingly. Only the fool claims that he is equal to all other men, and the man who makes such a ridiculous claim is bound to end up destroying himself because he is trying to apply absolute standards to a relative world. To achieve total equality with another man is to actually become that man, but the fact of our individuality precludes total identity with others. Our individuality not only begets inequality, it demands it.

If we have confused the idea of equality with the notion of freedom it is time for us to clarify our thoughts. The ideal of equality breeds frustration among those who recognize the many inequalities which exist in the society of mankind. The unequal man who demands equality will always have his demands ignored by other imperfect, unequal men. To strive for relative freedom makes sense, but to talk of equality as if it could actually occur is a waste of words. Demands for perfection only result in rejection.

The free man is not concerned with equality. In his conscientious pursuit of what is good and proper for his own nature he operates as an individual. Men who think in terms of equality also think in terms of conformity. When we use the word “equality” we should stress the spiritual idealism built into the word and forget the emphasis on materialistic equality. Equality and freedom on a spiritual level are natural to man, but the goal of materialistic equality is more apt to lead to slavery than to individual freedom.

Self-Respect and Self-Reliance

When a man desires only to live according to the highest dictates of his nature, he is demonstrating his belief that he is a free human being. When others would arbitrarily deny him of his right to live his own way, they tread on his natural rights. The gravest error minority man can make is to submit to the whims and fancies of the oppressive majority. Submission lends credence to the majority’s belief in its own righteousness, and is likely to lead to subjugation. Men who believe in personal freedom must stubbornly persist in their search for individual freedom, because if they give up the fight they will have to surrender a large portion of their souls. The soul, once shattered, is difficult to piece together again. Along with the shattering of a soul goes a loss of self-respect, and self-respect is the prime requisite for the man who would desire to become free.

One of the major problems of many civil rights movements is that individual pride among members of oppressed groups has shrunk to such a minimal size that it requires much time and effort to re-establish it. Another problem is that civil rights leaders do not necessarily reflect the desires of their own people when they demand unobtainable ideals. To aim for the unattainable perfection and expect to get it is naive. On the other hand, to demand the impossible in order to achieve the possible may be monumentally shrewd. Most leaders are not monumentally shrewd. They are simply men like the rest of us with more push than the rest of us. When we listen to the vocal outpourings of self-appointed leaders we must always remain aware that if the truth is only true sometimes, it is true even less often when it emanates from the mouths of men in power positions. Men in both minority and majority power positions are often more concerned with power than with truth.

If we cannot rely on men in power, on whom can we rely? Ultimately we must rely on ourselves. Whether we talk of freedom or morality or political arrangements or education or the problems of our heavily populated world we must always come back to ourselves. We are individual humans who think, and in our thinking capacity lies our salvation. It is only when we stop thinking for ourselves that we truly lose our freedom. We should not try to think for one another. We should only encourage one another to be free in our thinking and living. To live we need no great abundance of material items. We could do without our cars and our television sets and our appliances if we were to adopt a different set of spiritual and human values. But we do need food, clothing, shelter, and hopefully some love. Freedom is not to be found in the amassing of material possessions. It is not to be found in the reduction of man to a number or an average or a statistic. Nor is to be found when man considers himself no more than a tool in the industrial process. It is found in self-respect and respect for others.

Hope for the Future

If there is to be a future society in which we will be able to retain our individual freedom to live according to our natures, and in which we will be able to experience lives fit for humans, it will not be in a society which substitutes group opinions for divine ideals. Although spiritual ideals seem to be out of fashion in our times, it is far more human to live in a contradictory pursuit of what seems impossible than to settle for the meaningless attainment of the possible. Materialistic values change with each new fad. When man’s pursuit of personal pleasure replaces his pursuit of eternity he parts with his own self-respect and becomes the slave of other men. We need not fear economic enslavement or political enslavement as much as enslavement of the mind. We must resist the lure of the myths of security and equality. We must preserve our own individuality and assist others to do likewise. It is not an easy task, this preservation of the individual personality, but it is up to each and every one of us to chart his own course through the maze we call life. We have no need to be equal with one another, but we do need to be free in our thoughts and actions. The man who swaps his freedom for conformist security is a loser. The pain and discomfort which accompany freedom are nothing compared to the torture which follows the selling of one’s soul. When a man gives up his individual soul he becomes nothing; and there is no pain more severe than the awareness that one has voluntarily become a cipher.