Thoughts from Ethic of Freedom

Jacques Ellul’s, The Ethics of Freedom, is a wonderful book. I have been slowly reading through it and each time I open it, I am rewarded with some insights. It had impacted my hopes for my children, my work as a teacher, my love for my wife and my view of my life. As I read this past week, a couple of thoughts have imposed themselves on me. Even at inopportune times, like when I’m attending SDSU’s 28-14 win over Sac St. two quotes – one comforting, one challenging – keep going through my mind.

The Comforting Quote: “… Love cannot be lived out except in a direct personal relation. It is hypocrisy to think that love can be lived out through other people and things. … Means such as money, technology, and politics give me many other powers. I can quickly help my neighbor by giving him a check or enlisting him in my party or church or finding him a place with a single telephone call. These things, however, relieve me of the commitment of love.”  

When I first started thinking about this quote, it was more challenging than encouraging, because when I think of helping the people in my community, I think of organizing food and clothing drives, building houses in TJ or volunteering at a soup kitchen, so this quote challenged that way of thinking. But, as I thought about it more, it became encouraging because each time I’ve participated in meeting the needs of a mass of “disadvantaged” strangers, I walked away wondering if I was really making difference in their lives or changing society enough to make my effort worthwhile. Yet, this quote turns this idea around suggesting that even those people with power to change society, who exercise that power, aren’t actually being loving no matter how benevolent they are. This is encouraging because each of us has the same opportunity to love. In my life, I have done a better job of loving those I am in relationship with than loving abstractly those I don’t know. Society tells me that I’m not making a difference, but what if they’re wrong?

The Challenging Quote: In effect, however, this attitude {of pursuing happiness as a style of life) gives the object (what makes me happy) priority in my own conscience and existence. The trigger of my desire, the object itself, becomes the meaning of my life, the catalyst of my intelligence, the nerve of my energies. the pole of my orientation. In other words, I cease to have any other life-possibilities.”

Obviously, we live in a society that’s fixated on happiness. Justification for every action, no matter how destructive, is provided by the mantra, “I’m living my happiness.” Every person I know, myself included, spends the majority of their free time pursuing what makes them happy. On the surface, this seems like a great idea, because the alternative is intentionally doing what doesn’t bringing us happiness, but the quote above illuminates the problem of centering our lives on the pursuit of happiness: it eliminates the possibility of doing anything else. If we are honest, what brings us day to day happiness, what we end up actually doing with our free time, is often frivolous. Yet, it consumes most of our time and energy. Games like Jeopardy and Trivial Pursuit are centered around the “useless knowledge” we’ve all acquired pursuing our areas of interest. Personally, the amount of sports knowledge I’ve amassed is embarrassing in light of the quote above. If I poured the time reading and talking about sports into my education, I could have a PHDs! The challenge is not to dwell on the past, but moving into the present, how do we change the direction of out lives from following our happiness to live for others?

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