"I hope you're pleased with yourselves. We could all have been killed - or worse, expelled.” (Hermione Granger, Harry Potter and the Sorcorer’s Stone)
Like Hermione, I have always I have always been a rule-follower. The impulse to push against the boundaries established by parents, teachers, or others never made much sense to me. As a shy child, happy to slip through a day without notice, I could never understand why so many of my peers seemed determined to make trouble for themselves and everyone around. Even as an adult, I sometimes catch myself raising my hand when I want to speak among a group of friends. No one who knows me will be much surprised at this pledge of my rule-following, but perhaps they should be. Could we go back in time and ask a five, ten, or even fifteen-year-old Bethany, “What are the rules in your house?” that younger-me would have been baffled.
For most of my childhood, I can only remember being given a few explicit rules. On the first day of kindergarten, for example, my mother made it very clear that I was not to let anyone call me “Beth.” Years later, when I was in high school, she delivered a rather vague prohibition against “weird” clothing at church, but only if I were singing in the choir, where a tie-dyed cape or black veil (yes, veil) might distract people in the congregation. Aside from these rather particular mandates, my childhood and teen years were shaped by an extraordinary experience of freedom. I can never remember being told to do my homework--indeed, I can never remember my parents asking much about my homework. As a teenager, I never had a curfew, and often stayed out until the wee hours of the morning, so long as I had told my parents beforehand when to expect me home. My time was my own from a very early age, and when I would accompany my parents to the conferences and retreats they led, I would spend entire weekends roaming a campground or conference center while my parents and their students attended the official programs. My teachers treated me in much the same way, allowing me to direct much of my own studies even in elementary school.
Of course, my parents could afford to have few rules because, for the most part, I did the things I was supposed to do. If instead of rules I think about the habits and practices of my childhood home, I can make a long list: we prayed before meals; we did not work or shop on Sundays; we kept rooms clean and tidy; we did not watch rated-R movies; we avoided any waste of food, electricity, or water. While these practices might look like rules to outsiders, for me they seemed intuitive. They felt like freedom.
When I grew old enough to realize that this absence of rules was unusual, at least among the households of my friends and relatives, I began to ask questions that have been haunting nearly every realm of my life and attention lately:
What does it mean to be free? How do people come to use their freedom well?
I am posing this question on my blog because I believe that home should be a place we are free. I’m still pondering precisely what this means: perhaps that home is a place we do not need rules because we desire good things. Or a place where we are trusted, where we have authority because we work for the sustenance of the whole household. As I have studied history and literature, as I have learned to be a teacher, as I have watched my friends begin to parent children, as I have worshipped in a “free church” tradition, as I have watched this spring’s uprisings and revolutions in the Arab world, the question of becoming free has felt increasingly urgent this year.
From my own experience, I can see that I learned to be free by having freedom, and that from the examples of many wise adults and peers, I saw that love for God and others, not mere deference to authority, should be the force that governs my will and choices. At the same time, there have been seasons as an adult when I felt my freedom to be an extraordinary burden, and I had to learn that living a life of freedom requires courage as well as love.
However, as my friends constantly remind me, I am not normal, nor can I generalize answers to such important questions from my experience alone. I have encountered many ideas on this subject -- passages from Scripture, ideas from various philosophers, poets, and patriots, aphorisms and cliches -- but to synthesize all that would be a dissertation-length project, and I have one dissertation to write, already. Thus, I’m hoping you will offer some of your ideas and experiences on the subject of freedom. In future posts, I hope to return to this topic, perhaps dealing with some of the specific ways freedom is linked to vocation, life as single or married adults, and church, but for now I am risking some big questions:
What does it mean to be free? Are the ideas of “home” and “freedom” linked in your experience or philosophy? If you are a parent, how are you teaching your children to handle freedom? What are some ways in which freedom can be difficult?