I lived during the tumultuous 1960s and am reminded of some of the similarities between the years 1968 and 2020.
Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. It resulted in great civil unrest, particularly riots in more than 100 cities. It was a presidential election year, and on June 5, 1968 the front runner to win the Democratic nomination, Robert Kennedy, was assassinated. While today we are fighting the coronavirus, they were fighting the unpopular Vietnam War. There were calls to end the war and there were many who were demanding reforms in the representation by blacks and youth in government and politics. In 1968 we were truly a nation divided.
Back then the rallying cry of the millions of young radicals was “Freedom!” Total freedom. This is reflected in the popular song, “Chicago” by Crosby, Stills, and Nash.
We can change the world
Rearrange the world
If you believe in justice
If you believe in freedom
Let a man live his own life
Rules and regulations, who needs them?
Throw ‘em out the door, yeah
The question I would ask Graham Nash, who wrote and sang this song, “Can you really have a free society by taking the rules, regulations, and laws and throw them out the door?” As Nash suggests, who needs them?
This is what I see today in the lives of many Americans. They believe freedom is the absence of restraints in their lives. We should all have the right to follow the desires of our hearts, as long as we do not hurt anyone. It is easy to believe that this is a key to a full and happy life – to fulfill all of our yearnings and desires. And of course this is the American way, because we are guaranteed by the Declaration of Independence; “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
A person who believes this will find over time that this view of freedom and happiness does not work. It never will. It does not lead to happiness, and it never will, because this way of thinking inevitably breaks down. It leads to chaos and pain. In fact, I would say this model of freedom explains why people’s lives are not working in a progressive culture that seems to have it all.
One of the main reasons today’s view of freedom breaks down is because of our failure to understand the complexity of the human heart and design.
We believe we are only free if we can do whatever our heart wants. But have you ever noticed the competing desires in your life and how they can be so contradictory? For example, if you want to be healthy, fit and live a long life, but you also smoke cigarettes and drink heavily, at some point, you realize your model breaks down. The competing interests require that you choose a side, and you finally understand freedom is not the ability to do whatever you want, as your desires can be endless, easily colliding with each another.
Author Philip Yancey shares an interesting story about his older brother, an incredibly gifted musician.
In an attempt to break the shackles of a confining upbringing, he went on a grand quest for freedom, trying on worldviews like changes of clothing: Pentecostalism, atheistic existentialism, Buddhism, New Age Spirituality, Thomistic rationalism. He joined the flower children of the 1960s, growing his hair long and wearing granny glasses, living communally, experimenting with sex and drugs. For a time he sent me exuberant reports of his new life. Eventually, however, a darker side crept in. I had to bail him out of jail when an LSD trip went bad. He broke relations with every other person in the family, and he burned through several marriages. I got late-night suicide calls. Watching my brother, I learned that apparent freedom can actually mask deep bondage, a cry from the heart of unmet needs. The most musically gifted person I have ever known ended up tuning pianos, not playing them on a concert stage.
Yancey had a front row seat to witness the destructive power of a life in unrestrained freedom. Had his brother genuinely wanted to become an accomplished musician and play in concert halls, it would have required hours and hours of practice. This would have restricted the freedom he craved, although the discipline and hard work would have unleashed the immeasurable talent to produce beautiful music that otherwise lay dormant.
In the book of James (1:25), we find insightful words on freedom. He speaks of the person “who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom.” Yet, how could that be true, that God’s perfect law leads to our freedom? It would seem to be the opposite–that God’s law would take our freedom away from us. There are many who see God as one who desires to steal our happiness.
I would ask you to consider what James has written from a different perspective. Author Tim Keller says that sometimes you have to deliberately give up your freedom to engage in activities and thought processes that will enable you to release yourself to a richer kind of freedom. And as we look at the competing desires of our heart, it is critical for us to discover which of our desires are liberating and which are destructive. Ultimately, we need to determine which of our desires are aligned with who we really are, and therefore, enhance our lives.
In our quest for happiness, it is crucial we recognize that freedom is not a lack of restrictions; rather, it is finding the right restrictions. Freedom occurs when you discover the restrictions that best fit your being and lead to harmony, peace and joy in your life.
Richard E Simmons III is the founder and Executive Director of The Center for Executive Leadership and a best-selling author.