Some Lessons in Freedom
What does it mean to be free?
Freedom From Prison
I often think of my friend, Sam, an ex-Attica inmate, whom I met at an AA meeting many years ago. Freedom, for Sam, was very identifiable. When released from prison, institutional confinement was history for him. He could now do whatever he wanted.
He was free.
On the other hand, at 52, he entered a kind of free-fall world with no job skills and lost time, which he could have used to build some seniority and benefits in a manufacturing job.
Nevertheless, technically, he was still free.
Terminal Cancer, Limited Choices
And then he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Freedom became more muted in the silences of a hospital room as he lay in bed staring at the ceiling and pulling the covers up to his chiseled chin.
His body eventually went into the release mode. Organs began to shut down. His eyelids looking more like small frail cupboards locked from within or shutters that had been pulled shut after a summer vacation.
And then the last breath before the final silence. He was now totally free—-from thinking about the possibility of a job, from relationships, from money worries, from obligations, from secrets, from honesty, and, finally, from life.
Freedom from prison, I learned from Sam, was not the-pot-of-gold-at-the-end-of-the-rainbow narrative Hollywood would pump out to a summer teenage crowd.
Adolescent and early-adult choices can have an initial fatal attraction that we pay for for the rest our lives. I never asked Sam why he was in Attica. But I knew you didn’t arrive at Attica because of unpaid parking tickets.
In a very real sense, Sam didn’t have much freedom. He had few, if any, possible job choices. Although he became an icon to a lot of younger people in AA, his community circle was very narrow. And so many of his relationships were endogamous (same economic and ethnic class).
Fewer Choices, Greater Freedom
Sam was a street kid who morphed into a fifty-two year old adult trying to be responsible for his own life without drugs or alcohol.
And that, my friends, was indeed an accomplishment.
Because of his early adult criminal behavior, Sam had surrendered all the other collateral material rewards of being a responsible adult in this country—a job, a car, kids in college, a mortgage, a summer vacation, a pension—all the things many Americans would say define our freedom, on the one hand, but also have their own burdens and risks.
And yet, within Sam’s very austere life, he had purpose. He had goals as simple as taking time to talk over coffee or to make it on time to a meeting. Or to guide a newcomer through the twelve steps
I might add, by the way that Sam’s language was a mixture of prison Ebonics, hip-hop, street, and mystical-like epigrams. Even if some of us had no clue what he was saying, we knew, we just knew, he was wise. Or, at the very least, street-wise.
Sam also had that wonderful expansiveness to take people into his circle (as he did me). People who are preoccupied with themselves often do not have the freedom to take others into their lives, including this white, bourgeois college professor.
The Scars of Imperfection
I’m willing to admit here that Sam may have used his followers to hide from his own fears of transparency and insecurity. Worshipers can often steal one’s authenticity, and the worshiped can be seduced by a perception other people have of them.
In the end, it is not unusual for the venerated to start playing a walk-on-water role that is expected of them. Sam may have been doing this, on some level. But I saw enough of the “real” Sam to give him some slack on this issue.
Lessons to be Learned
So, here’s what I learned from Sam about freedom (mind you he never gave me any of his own opinions about freedom; I just watched him and, after his death, I reflected on his life and behaviors during the very brief time I knew him):
- Too many choices can enslave us. If I know I can choose from a candy-store of possibilities, I have the extra burden of having to choose from too many options. Limiting my choices can actually give me more freedom.
- When my psyche is free of self-torture, I am free to be more tolerant, more loving, more empathetic, more generous. If I’m embroiled in my own baggage, I don’t have the time or energy to give to others.
- Institutional incarceration, on some level, can give an inmate a certain amount of three-meals-a-day security. Sam’s out-of-prison life made me realize that, at his age, freedom had to be very scary
- In confronting a terminal illness, I have one last choice to make. And that, very simply, is to surrender.
Another chapter, another day, more lessons to be learned on this beautiful, but sometimes fragile journey of recovery.