By Diana Autumn
It was a hot, muggy July afternoon in Philadelphia. Even the bright American flags were hanging limp on their flagpoles, as if the weather was too enervating for them to fly. I was doing the tourist circuit, and no tourist stop in Philadelphia would be complete without a visit to Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, and where in 1787 the United States Constitution was hammered out by the representatives of the thirteen independent states. I smiled to myself, perhaps with a little smugness, thinking of how hot the representatives must have been in those outfits they used to wear. Imagine if I were wearing a wig!
By now my feet were hurting and my mind was numb with all the history I was pouring into it, so I decided to visit briefly, just to get a feel of the place where so many great minds had come together and shaped the course of history. They had shaped my life as well, as I enjoy the freedoms that they debated there. Seeing Independence Hall and thinking about what it symbolized made me feel thankful for all the effort that went into ensuring the freedom I am granted. Shaping ideas about freedom and putting them into practice took the combined work of many dedicated human beings. I realized that freedom is a privilege that all human beings yearn for. But what exactly is freedom, and what is it evolving to be?
I sat down on a hard bench, away from the crowd, studying a portrait of Benjamin Franklin, who looked surprisingly the way he looks on the $100 bill. I'm not sure what happened then, but the next thing I knew, I awoke to find myself alone in the dark hall. Had I fallen asleep? How could I get out of there? I got up and headed toward a light at the end of the hall where I thought I heard the sounds of a custodian working. As I approached, I saw a funny old man, dressed in even funnier clothes. Maybe he was wearing some kind of costume to fit in with the surroundings. He turned and looked at me, with kind eyes that peered through his bifocals. He looked strangely familiar. "Who are you, and what are you doing here?" I questioned.
"That's just what I was about to ask you," he replied. "Well, just call me Ben," he chuckled, as he pulled on his suspenders and pushed his long hair back from his face. Maybe he was an aging flower child, I thought. But he appeared much too old, and too thoughtful. Or maybe he was suffering from senile dementia and was lost and had forgotten how to dress. But he didn't seem confused. On the contrary, he was quite sure of himself. And anyway, I was the one who was lost.
So much for our brief introductions. I forgot about wanting to get out of there, so intrigued was I by this man called Ben, or could I say Old Ben? No, that would be too much like a clock, so Very Old Ben.
He was persistent. "What are you doing here?" he repeated.
"I was just thinking about freedom, and that freedom is not free," I answered. "Except I'm not sure what freedom really is."
"You too," he smiled knowingly. "This question has been my lifelong-and even longer-quest. Can't say that I've found the answer yet. But I haven't given up."
"Yes," I said, leaving my comment open for him to go on.
"The problem is I made some errata in the process, plenty of them," he continued after a long pause.
"Errata?" I questioned.
"Yes, mistakes, in printers' terms. But I try to learn from them. Started out young when I left my printer's apprenticeship with my brother, because I wanted to be free. But I found out the hard way that leaving my responsibilities was not a way to be free, even though I had felt tied down there, and by leaving I was free to go my own way. I had freely given my word, and then I went back on it. I can excuse myself that I was young and didn't know better, but now I know that freedom lies in being able to fulfill my word, not in getting out of it."
"I think you're right," I said after some reflection. "If freedom is not free, that means it requires something of us. I guess we are never really free from the consequences of our actions."
"You hit the nail on the head," he exclaimed with some joy at my understanding. "But at one time I wasn't so convinced of it. I thought everything depended on fate. I even published a pamphlet about it, A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity. In it I said that there is no real freedom of choice because we are controlled by fate. Therefore, man is not morally responsible for his actions. I see things a lot differently now. I think it was just a reaction on my part. I didn't believe it much. Erratum! My long life has shown me that there is usually an opportunity to choose. Thank God, I didn't base my life on the idea that fate rules everything. Then practically nothing would have gotten done. I would not now be on the track of what freedom really is. Now I understand that to be really free, I need to work on it continuously. It's not like one minute I'm free and that's the end of it. It's a process-a process of unfolding my human possibilities to be free. Don't know if I'll ever get there. But that's all right. I'm learning as I go along." Then he added, "What do you think?"
I had to reflect for a moment. Then I offered cautiously, "Yes, that corresponds to what I think about freedom. Freedom is not doing whatever I want. For me, that's a false idea of freedom. When I think about freedom in those terms, I find that I am being driven by my impulses and desires. I don't think that is what it means to be free. I can be better than my impulses and desires. I can learn to freely choose something better."
"Worked on that some myself. I think it's essential. External freedom needs to be accompanied by inner freedom. Now that's a work." He smiled, and started rummaging through some papers that were spread out on the wooden desk.
"What are you looking for? Perhaps I can help," I offered.
It took him a while to answer, and finally his cheerful face appeared above the flurry of papers. He held out a little book filled with charts and notations. "I worked on being free from vice. Kind of like your impulses and desires. I called it working on virtues. I wanted to be perfect. Not that I ever even approached being perfect, but I feel myself a better man for it. Self-improvement, that's one way to look at it. It made me fit for society, and more fit to do the work I had to do. For me, that is a measure of freedom."
"Yes, I think freedom does have a lot to do with so-called self-improvement or virtues. But I rather like to call it self-knowledge. I meditate, and that helps me a lot. It reminds me of what Viktor Frankl said about his experience in a concentration camp. He said they couldn't take away his freedom, because he was free inside."
Very Old Ben seemed interested. His brow furrowed in thought, trying to connect my words with his experience.