I would be remiss in my writing if, on the celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day I did not write something, though more than the social pressure of doing so is a bone-deep appreciation for the trials and tribulations such a man went through without recourse to violence, for the sake of freedom. For all my talk of serenity and humility, my work on the reduction of anger and judgment, all it often takes is a few minutes behind the wheel of my car and that journey takes a sharp turn in a distinctly un-serene direction. Here is a man who was hit, spit on, and suffered enormous indignities that most of us today would consider fictional were they not so well documented, such is our abject disgust for the actions. I could not and do not hope to achieve the eloquence and sheer magnetic quality of King’s speech but one message that stands out to me today is this: “…we have to face the fact that modern man suffers from a kind of poverty of the spirit…”
Technological innovation has been the cornerstone for much of what is considered modern advancement. Until recently however the technical and scientific enterprise, without denying the profound help that it has brought to the physical welfare of very nearly the entire human race, did more than help us expand our ways of knowing and parse out nature into ever-more manipulatable finer points; it dissociated us from each other and denied the underlying spiritual truths that religions often merely brush by. Freedom has long been characterized as the ability to do something, leading a character in the movie “Jurassic Park” to remark that we only focused on the fact that we could do something, not on whether we should. We soar with wings of metal and forget the glory of the birds, we land on the moon and forget that our place in the universe is but one far-flung speck in the universe, and we cure disease and map the genome and yet forget that we are all truly and incredibly interconnected in an integral reality.
Thankfully together we hold the potential for bridging the gap of that dissociative divide and focus on the integrated nature of our shared humanity. As Wiliam Ury notes in The Third Side, “Humanity is returning to a dependence on a basic resource that is, as in hunter-gatherer times, an expandable pie. We are returning to the horizontal relationships that existed among human beings for most of human evolution. The network is once again becoming the defining social organization for the human community.”
Information is now our expandable resource, breaking barriers and old ways of thinking, hence why the few despotic regimes that still exist attempt so hard to control it. But like roving bands following the movements of their food/clothing source, so the human race can and does find ways to access the sum-total of human knowledge, whether through smart phone or wind-up-powered computer.
We can travel faster and farther than ever before and hence possess the freedom to do something, but it is small in the face of being free from oppression and ideological despotism, where one’s sense of importance and grandeur is forever dampened by the darkening influence of a philosophy of separation and brokenness. Whether this takes the form of conservative religious ideologies or political/social form like fascism, the result is a limiting of space to hold real freedom. We may have the freedom, some of us, to play video games for hours on end or watch endless television shows, having the technological know-how to do so, it is for naught if we are doing so to escape the terrifying reality that we do not possess the freedom from moral and existential castration, of being cut-off from our human potential.
Freedom from is precisely what Obama in his inaugural address today spoke to when he said: “The commitments we make to each other — through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security — these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.” Such programs and the underlying social cohesiveness that underlies them address both the reality of a social experiment in which none of us progress without the usage of resources that we all provide and had a hand in creating and a recognition that the greatness of the human condition is made possible by the freedom from worrying about basic needs and thus to use our ever-widening conscious power to explore our potential.
What a focus on the freedom to do does is limit our imagination. We expend our awareness only on the myopic vision of a single action, forgetting that everything we do not yet know is an infinite expanse awaiting its realization and instantiation. This is why dialogue or communal action is the foundation of a truly free society, taking from the infinite resource of information and expanding into the frontiers of the until-now unknown. As William Ury states, again from The Third Side, “…dialogues aim not to convert others or to reach agreement on the issues, but rather to promote mutual understanding and build relationships that can prevent escalation into violence.” The freedom to do something, while often fully valid, is not the greater freedom, it merely points to the view we hold of the world, whether it be one of limit and dissociation or one of expansiveness and integration. We can, as King noted, learn to walk the Earth as brothers and sisters.