freedom3Freedom vs. Bondage

It’s Passover and the theme of freedom is on my mind. This holiday celebrates the liberation of the Israelites from slavery and their successful crossing of the Red Sea—a story we are commanded to tell every year at this season.

Why is this tale so important that the Bible commands we retell it again and again?

While there are many answers to this question, the one that struck me most this year was that we have choices every day between freedom and bondage. Passover is our opportunity to look at our lives and see where we are stuck, in a rut, giving up, or otherwise enslaved, both in our circumstances and in our own minds. Once we identify these “narrow places,” (the word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, means “narrow places”), we can do something about them.

A Unique Seder Experience

My family’s Passover seder was itself an expression of freedom. Some context: Passover is a food-focused holiday. In the order of the service, there are multiple instructions to eat certain foods at certain times; and the conclusion of the first part of the service is a big meal. A BIG meal. It’s like Thanksgiving in the extent to which people indulge themselves on food. The seder also includes four cups of wine (though in my family it was grape juice all the way).

Since my nephew Daniel has Crohn’s Disease and is currently ingesting nothing but Pediasure peptide drinks, my brother-in-law Michael created—drumroll please—a food-free seder. This feat, you can imagine, required a huge amount of creativity. Michael designed a board game, complete with a deck of cards that held debate questions and other contests to see who could answer a “Passover Pursuit” question first. He dressed up as Moses, which was way out of the box for him. And he led an evening of learning, singing and debate.

Even without a meal, we managed to spend three hours on our seder talking, laughing, and debating.

Breaking Out of the Box

One of the debate questions that came up in the Passover Pursuit card deck was what freedom means in the modern age. I was pitted against 16-year-old Daniel for the battle. He pulled out a djembe (an African drum) and made up a rap song. I don’t remember his words; what struck me was his approach to the debate. In my world, debate means talking and arguing. Daniel broke out of that cage with his drumming and rapping.

Inspired, I countered with an interpretive dance of freedom vs. bondage. I stood for a few seconds with my arms crossed, strait-jacket-like over my chest, head down. Then I took a step to the side and danced my heart out. I did this about three times. Then I talked about how two people, or even the same person, can be in the same circumstances and choose to feel free or imprisoned.

Enslaved by Circumstances?

I’ll admit I got some help from a video by that I had watched in preparation for Passover, where a person in a picture was labeled “Free” and then the same person in the same picture was labeled “Burdened.” Other identical pictures were labeled “Liberated” and “Enslaved,” and “Pain” and “Pleasure.” As humans, I argued, we can have illnesses and consider them burdens or find our own liberation within them. We can work a job and feel trapped by it or find our liberation in it. We can win the lottery and gain joy or misery.

I won the debate. Part of it was that I made a good argument. But more than that, I think the group was impressed that I didn’t let myself fall into a typical debate mindset and took the risk of dancing my argument.

An Octopus’s Story: Existential Anxiety vs. Existential Guilt

Perhaps this is a coincidence, but just last week an octopus named Inky escaped from a national aquarium in New Zealand, squeezing through a 50-meter drainpipe into the sea. What might be more remarkable, given that octopuses are famous escape artists, is that Inky’s tankmate, Blotchy, did not budge. Was Blotchy content to remain in captivity? Was he unaware of his free will and the freedom available just down the drainpipe? Had he given up on the chance of an unfettered life? Of course the answers to these questions are more for us to ponder for ourselves. When we are feeling shackled, do we choose to take extreme action, like Inky, or to submit to our lot?

Fundamentally, we have a choice between existential anxiety and existential guilt. Taking action, especially action that scares us because it is so unfamiliar and takes us into unknown, potentially risky territory, produces existential anxiety. We rarely regret making a conscious, risky choice regardless of the outcome. In contrast, existential guilt arises when we take the safe path. Submitting to our existential guilt produces existential regret: “a profound desire to go back and change a past experience in which one has failed to choose consciously or has made a choice that did not follow one’s beliefs, values, or growth needs.” That’s the kind of choice Blotchy made. It’s not the kind of choice I like to make.

The Choice is Yours

We human beings have clear freedom of choice in every moment, at least over our own mindset about our circumstances. In the end, the ability to think what we think and believe what we believe is the ultimate freedom. The choices we make to break out of the box and into unchartered territory are the ones that move us forward, out of our personal narrow places, and toward a life unbound.

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