There are some people whom slavery holds fast; however, there are many others who hold fast to slavery.
– Seneca –
For many people, meaning in key areas of their lives is packaged and imposed on them by their dominant cultures and they lack the skills to question these versions of the world and how we are to live. They are passive consumers of other people’s priorities and other people’s definitions of what constitutes a successful, well-lived and meaningful life.
It is not the culture of the people but the culture concocted for the people’s consumption!
– Michael Warren –
The fact that we may live in a ‘free’ society does not ensure our liberation. True freedom is something that must be actively claimed by each person. For many people, meaning in key areas of their lives is packaged and imposed on them by their dominant cultures and they lack the willingness or the skills to question these versions of the world. When one is a slave to societal demands, the mandates of media and our consumer society, inherited attitudes and the good opinion of other people, one is not free.
At the end of apartheid, Nelson Mandela warned his people that they were not yet free; that they had merely achieved the possibility for freedom. I think he was implying that true freedom is something that must be actively claimed by each person. The freedom to react, choose and engage with the world on their own terms.
The Brazilian educator Paolo Freire argued that education must help every individual to win back the right to say his or her own word and name the world they live in. One of the central concerns of Christian education should be to equip young people to critique their reality, to awaken in them a sense that they must claim what is surely a basic human right; the capacity to make meaning for themselves.
It appears that, for the Christian in the consumer society, two Gospels are in competition for attention and allegiance. Both make statements about the ultimate meaning of human life. One Gospel reveals people as replaceable and marketable commodities, whereas the other, opposed to the first, reveals persons as irreplaceable and uniquely free beings.
We can be told that our highest calling is to be consumers, that happiness can be bought, that products can fulfill us and satisfy our deepest human needs. This world view is at odds with the Christian vision.
As Fr Jim DiGiacomo said many years ago:
Christianity encourages us to love people and use things, whereas a consumer culture can encourage us to use people and love things.
This conflict can bring a distorted view of what it means to be truly free in contemporary society. Young people stress their need for individualism and freedom but are often unconsciously slaves to fashion, advertising and the mandates of consumerism.
I once witnessed an interview with a young Moslem woman who chose to wear a veil and moderate form of Islamic dress to her classes at Sydney University. When the interviewer implied that her freedom was being restricted by the wearing of the dress, she replied that she felt truly free since she chose dress according to her beliefs. She added that she pitied the lack of freedom she witnessed in her fellow students who appeared to be slaves to fashion and peer group pressure.
Comparison is the thief of real joy.
– Theodore Roosevelt –
The education we offer, should help our young people to look deeply into the world’s recipes for success, happiness and wholeness, and to be selective and critical as to what they accept. We want them to assess and challenge popular assumptions about the world and develop a capacity to analyse causes and consequences of their lived reality. We offer the Gospel’s counter-cultural vision for what constitutes the good, the meaningful and the well-lived life.
We encourage young people to live independently of the approval or good opinion of others, intentionally and selectively, amid the wins and losses, the successes and disappointments, to which no one is immune. We want them to unshackle themselves from unexamined opinions and inherited prejudices, and live lives consistent with their own inner moral compasses.
In a world of emerging walls and closing borders, an education for liberation will free our young from insular thinking, narrowness and intolerance. It will aspire to develop a culture of encounter, integration and of building bridges. Education wherein, to quote Indian poet, educator and Nobel prize winner Rabindranath Tagore:
The mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out of the depth of truth.
Our young people should learn that the freedom and opportunities that they might enjoy, through the good fortune of their births, are not a license for them to do whatever they want. Rather, it should be freedom to do what they ought to do for the making of a fairer and more just society. We must show them that freedom and service are inextricably linked and assert that with privilege, comes social responsibility.
The education that we offer the young should consistently remind them that, although we cannot control all the good and bad, positive and negative that life will throw at us, we do have the freedom to control the way we respond to these circumstances. The inner peace and happiness we will experience during our lives, depends on us claiming this freedom.
We who lived in the concentration camps can remember those who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread……They may have been few in number but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from us but the last of human freedoms…the freedom to choose our spirit in any circumstance.
– Viktor Frankl –
Equanimity, the capacity to remain calm, regardless of changing life circumstances, is a hallmark of true freedom.
The following true story illustrates this gift of equanimity magnificently.
Roberto de Vincenzo was an Argentine golfer who became quite famous in the 1960s; he was the first golfer from South America to make it on the big stage. There is a famous story of one day when Roberto won a golf tournament and received his pay cheque; in those days, professional golfers drove from tournament to tournament and he was in the car park about to put his golf clubs in the boot of his car, when he was approached by a woman who had a baby in her arms. She said, “Mr de Vincenzo, my baby is very sick and will die if he does not receive the right medicine. Can you please help me?” Without hesitation, Roberto de Vincenzo signed over his winning cheque to this woman, saying to her, “There you go lady. I hope your child enjoys many happy days.”
A week later, he was arriving at another PGA tournament, when an official came up to him and said, “Roberto, I hear that you handed over your winner’s cheque last week to a lady who had a sick baby.” He said, “Yes, that’s right”; the official said, “Look I’m sorry my friend, but she fleeced you. The lady was a fraud and the baby was not sick.” Roberto responded, “You mean there was no sick baby who was going to die?” The official said, “Yes”. Roberto responded, “Well that’s the best news I’ve heard all year!”
Through his response, Roberto de Vincenzo demonstrated wonderful equanimity and freedom of heart. His reaction was that of a truly free person.
Some important messages for young people:
- Resist shallow definitions of what constitutes a worthwhile and valuable life and overcome insular thinking, fear, narrowness and intolerance. Reject versions of the world that define success solely in terms of money, accumulation of things and over emphasis on status and security. Understand that not everything of value can be measured.
- Choose wisely and engage with the world on your own term Claim your freedom to love, to choose truth, to do good, to create the beautiful. But also, reject the ugly, the false and the mean spirited.
- Unshackle yourself from unexamined opinions and inherited prejudices and embrace the capacity to question and make meaning, to contribute and live reflectively and compassionately. Aspire to a life of equanimity and harmony, independent of the approval or good opinion of others.
- In some classic stories, the hero is the person who went out to slay a dragon who was threatening the hero’s village. How do we become heroes and what do we have to slay to make our contribution to the world?
The Greek roots of the word suggest that the hero is one who can choose. The hero interprets life through her/his own experience. The journey leads to questioning and interrogation of the culture in which one lives. Who am I? What is valuable? How do I find peace and happiness? What does it mean to live justly? The hero is suspicious of easy answers that are readily on offer in the dominant culture. Our Catholic schools are in the business of creating heroes! An exciting thought!
The heroic life does not require you to become something greater than you are. But it does require you to be faithful to your own authentic path. The hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than him or herself. To do this we must slay the dragon of envy; the dragon of fear to be different; the dragon that tells us that near enough is good enough; the dragon that tells us that it’s OK to live a copied, inauthentic life.
Our human condition gives us one huge concession: we don’t have to be perfect, just the best we can! Not perfect, but yes, authentic!
In order to skill our young to claim their capacity to be free, many of our systems of education themselves need liberation from shallow, easily codified and standardised indicators of success and excellence. When encouraging excellence in education, a broad canvas which always respects diversity of talents and abilities, and the primacy of personal authenticity, strength of character and uniqueness of contribution, should be encouraged and celebrated.