The Freedom of Innocence
Freedom comes in many forms.
For instance, there is a freedom in the innocence of a child. My one-year-old grandson has started laughing. Watching the cats play, he laughs. Noticing the adults in his life move or clap or tap their foot, he laughs. Gazing at the sky, the trees, the air itself, he laughs. When when he laughs, we laugh, too. He has discovered a new game.
How joyful is this innocent freedom he radiates. He knows nothing of floods, supreme court confirmation hearings, sexual abuse, war, murder, lead in drinking water, poverty, poachers, hunger, illness, or plague. All he knows is what he sees, hears, and touches. So far, his world is blessed with beauty and wonder.
Of course, sometimes he falls and hits his head or objects he desires are whipped away from his grasp. Then he cries, fully immersed in the misery of the moment. Soon, though, some motion or sound or game distracts him, the hurt is forgotten, and he moves on into the freedom of the next moment. My grandson doesn’t realize yet that danger, insecurity, and doubt will be part of his future, as they are for all of us. Neither a painful past nor an uncertain future weigh him down.
If we could live so completely in the here and now, we, too, could know the freedom of innocence.
Trapped by Memories
I suppose some monks or nuns or enlightened laity experience such intense mindfulness. Most of us do not. At times, the pain of life feels like suffering. Tragedy, wounds, frightening memories can trap us in resentment.
My mother spent most of her life in that trap. Though her childhood was blessed in many ways, her father was emotionally distant. A brilliant, rational man, he didn’t know how to talk to a little girl. As an adult, my mother spent eight years married to my father. Those years, she once told me, were the worst of her life.
Her pain was real. So was her suffering. Yet she couldn’t get past it. Instead, her bitterness imprisoned her.
The Healing Freedom of Forgiveness
Not until the last year of her life did she release her anger. What freed her was dementia. Once again, she found the innocence of living in the moment. When she remembered her past, details eluded her, so she found it easy to rewrite her memories.
For instance, she decided she’d divorced my father after only three days of marriage. This helped her feel powerful and in control of her life. It freed her from her anger. Not long after that, her unresolved resentment toward her own father evaporated when she looked at a picture of the two of them gazing at one another with honest affection.
“He loved me very much,” she said.
That was true, and if his way of loving her hadn’t been what she’d wanted at the time, she now forgot that. All she remembered was his love. By re-inventing her life, she found the freedom to heal.
Freedom in Acceptance
We heal in many ways. Therapy, meditation, writing, dancing, drumming, reflection, prayer, surrender, forgiveness can all help. When we review our life with honesty and compassion, when we seek support and guidance from others, healing follows. Rather than being stuck in bitterness, we become alive and free.
What helps us heal is a freedom of acceptance. As we work through guilt, embarrassment, fear, anger, and resentment, we come to accept ourselves as we are. We acknowledge both our limitations and our power, and we accept what is in our hearts without shame. Through prayer and surrender, we can learn to trust in something greater than ourselves, freeing us from worry that serves no purpose, and helping us stop trying to control what is beyond our power to change. Our own effort matters, of course, but acceptance helps us realize that, sometimes, fate blows us where she will.
That doesn’t mean we are powerless, nor does it mean that we should give up. The freedom of acceptance reminds us that we are loved and lovable. Encouraged to do our best, even if that means risking failure, we can persevere, hold onto hope, and appreciate all we have received from those who came before. As they say, we stand on the backs of generations.
The humility that underlies such an understanding is its own kind of freedom. When we can accept ourselves as we are, we more easily recognize that we are simply one human among many, one descendant in our family tree. In the enormous scheme of history, how important is each one of us? Yes, each of us matters greatly. We are all unique. No matter how important our work is, however, it’s never finished. We depend on our grandchildren to carry on our mission of acceptance, forgiveness, and freedom.
If we can truly accept our place in this world, if we can truly trust in a divine purpose, in the love of our ancestors, and in the value of our children, the blame, pressure, and expectation we put on ourselves or others will fall away. We become free to be the best person we can be. By humbly accepting our humanity, we discover the freedom of acceptance.
Freedom in Death
Fully accepting our humanity, though, means we must also accept our mortality. We do not live forever.
Yet death itself can be a sort of release. In the book Walden, Henry David Thoreau wrote, “The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation.”  Indeed, many people experience nearly constant suffering. Terminal Illness can be especially brutal. In such situations, death seems like a blessing. For all we know, it is.
Over the years, I have journeyed with many people as they sickened, eventually crossing over into that oblivion we do not fully understand. People tend to die the way they have lived, some with determination, others with serenity, and still others with fear. Nonetheless, most of them, in the last days, come to accept that they must let go of everything they ever held dear. All the little deaths of our lives are a kind of letting go. If we come to terms with them, we more easily accept that final leap into a silence we cannot comprehend.
Perhaps even more than anything else, what prepares us for this final acceptance of our lives is to embrace uncertainty and unknowing. One day we will die. How freeing it is to accept this reality. When the moment for surrender comes, how freeing to sink into that eternal peace.
Freedom in Recovery
For those of us still alive, however, our work is to find freedom here and now, in this body, and in this life. Such freedom comes from recovery.
What is recovery?
In the field of rubber physics, there is a measurement of how quickly a substance returns to its original state after being stretched and strained. That is its elastic recovery.  How well does the rubber bounce back? How resilient is it?
Like rubber, we humans are stressed; we feel strained. How resilient are we? Regardless of how far we are stretched, how much pain and trauma we experience, and regardless of whether that stress is physical, mental, or emotional, or if it involves all three, recovery can be thought of as the effort needed and the time required for us to return to something like our original state.
If we think of that original state as being similar to the one my grandson experiences, we’ll never get there. In fact, most traumas or significant events change us so much that even recovery won’t bring us back to the person we were before. We are more complex than rubber.
Healing that Leads to Freedom
Yet as we heal from intrusive memories, as our bones knit and our muscles relax, as we process and reinterpret the horrors of our past, we can find a kind of peace. We can become free.
In this way, through the freedoms of innocence, acceptance, forgiveness, and recovery, we will find it easier to let go of our addictions. That doesn’t mean we are ever completely healed. As we overcome one addiction, another may demand our attention. In the same way, new memories and new triggers surface even when we think we’ve done all our healing. Just as we must monitor our addictions all our life, so our healing never ends.
That’s not so bad. Although healing can be difficult, even painful, the process is also interesting, satisfying, and even joyful. Over time, as one freedom builds upon one another, as we become more comfortable in our bodies, the healing process grows easier. If we continue to explore our tender places, if we seek acceptance and forgiveness, if we allow ourselves to grieve the little deaths that lead to growth, we may discover our resentments have lessened, that we live more innocently in each moment, and that we have become, without even realizing it, more free.
In faith and freedom,
- See https://www.poynter.org/news/new-york-times-corrects-misquote-thoreaus-quiet-desperation-line – Silverman, Craig, “New York Times Corrects Misquote of Thoreau’s ‘Quiet Desperation’ Line,” Poynter, April 30, 2012, https://www.poynter.org/news/new-york-times-corrects-misquote-thoreaus-quiet-desperation-line, accessed 9/21/18.
- Isayev, A. I., Dinzburg, B., “Elastic Recovery of Rubber Vulcanizates at Very Short Times,” Journal of Elastomers and Rubbers, Vol 28, Issue 4, 1996, http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/009524439602800406, accessed 9/21/18.
Copyright © 2018 Barbara E. Stevens