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Thursday, December 08, 2005

Pope Benedict XVI On Human Freedom

Newsday/AP reporting on Pope Benedict's homily:
"Man nurtures the suspicion that God, at the end of the day, takes something away from his life, that God is a competitor who limits our freedom and that we will be fully human only when we will have set him aside," Benedict said.

"There emerges in us the suspicion that the person who doesn't sin at all is basically a boring person, that something is lacking in his life, the dramatic dimension of being autonomous, that the freedom to say 'no' belongs to real human beings," the pontiff said.
And he suggested that we summon the moxie to "overcome the temptation of a mediocre life, made of compromises with evil." It is God who gave us the freedom to say no, just as we all have the freedom to eat ourselves or drink ourselves to death. The freedom to make the choice does not make such a choice productive or good.

The life committed to a greater purpose and in service of a greater good is far more satisfying and far more adventurous than a life committed to fulfilling our own momentary needs. Anyone who has ever tried to live by ethical mandates has discovered that for his or her own self. Choosing, in freedom, to try to live a life devoting to building rather than destroying, to helping others rather than impairing them, poses a person with so many difficult choices that it is comparable to climbing Mount Everest.

But the confounding thing is that in the middle of all of this we find joy, companionship and great personal satisfaction, whereas a person who only seeks personal satisfaction and his or her own advantage generally ends up lonely, dissatisfied and often depressed. Life may be short, but it is too long to spend solely in your own company.

A few days after I came back from the NE, Chief No-Nag asked me why I had done something. I forget what it was - maybe I had cooked him something special? Anyway, I told him that I didn't want him out there wandering up to women and telling them a sad tale of neglect and abandonment so that they'd take an interest in him. He started laughing very hard, and finally said "But that would be like having the gravy without the turkey, or the dessert without the dinner... It's not the real thing!"

And he was right. Happiness is something you seem to trip over while you are taking care of other people and doing things that need doing, not something you find by seeking it. This is not obvious at all when you are young, and that is why moral guidance and teaching exists. The laws of God (or ethics) are for our own benefit and for our own happiness, not for our diminishment.

The older I get the more I see this rule playing out. People who try to live life to get as much as they can for themselves wind up the poorest in the scale of human happiness. People who care about others and try to do something for other people seem much happier, have better relationships and seem to have more balance and resilience. Such a life is richer, more complex and filled with depth.

This is the real culture gap in this country. It is not between liberal and conservative, religious or agnostic, red or blue state. You can be a selfish miserable conservative or a selfish miserable liberal, and I have met people who use religous doctrine as a cloak for their own self-seeking and ungenerous behavior. The real gulf has opened between those people who believe we have a freely-chosen duty to others and those who truly have bought into the idea so precisely explained by Pope Benedict XVI.

So the route to happiness is Canadian ("order and good government") not American ("life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness")?
Ah, but there's the irony.

No government yet ever succeeded in making people happy, unselfish and wise. The moralistic utopias of Communism and various religious attempts either fail on the order of Calvinist Geneva or spin in tragically like Jonestown.

The benefits seem to be experienced by individuals only if they have the freedom to make the choice, and the benefits to society clearly don't occur unless individuals make their own choices.

This is probably because only an individual can choose a course meaningful to that individual. Sparta mandated marriage and Athens did not - yet Sparta fell and Athens thrived long after.

So my answer is that "life, liberty and pursuit of happiness" is the answer. Granted, some individuals will come to grief, but I don't see societal disintegration or casualties in free societies on the same grand scale of the moral utopias.
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