What our freedom demands

In the fight against heroin and other addictive substances, the slippery slope of self-gratification is too often overlooked and the need for self-control too often minimized.

Ann Hermes/Staff/File
Officer Mike Steiger patrols a beach in Avalon, N.J.

Freedom opens up choice in what we think, do, and say, and how we live. No wonder people around the world long for it, fight for it, and die for a right that they know they were born with and are entitled to but which has been kept from them because of tyranny, prejudice, ideology, economics, history, or an accident of birth. 

Freedom has spread across the planet in recent decades. Its progress is not always immediate or permanent. For every Wenceslas Square in Prague there’s a Tiananmen Square in Beijing. For every Tahrir Square in Egypt in 2011 there is a Tahrir Square in 2013. Still, even if there are detours, the allure of freedom is undiminished.

In time, freedom will prevail. But then, when choice is abundant and options plentiful, there comes a critical moment. A free human can take a little or a lot from the buffet table, enjoy life in its variety or seek only its pleasures. Is freedom a license to indulge, or is there something more we should do with it? Freedom doesn’t say. Freedom leaves our options open.

In a kind of greed-is-good twist of pretzel logic, free people today are often urged to think of themselves as consumers. Consumer confidence is cheered, consumer prices tracked, consumer rights protected. At one level, that’s understandable. Employment relies on consumer demand. The commonweal is funded by taxes on consumer transactions. But until recently, there was a counterbalancing aspect to consumption as the highest and best activity of free people. That would be self-control. Self-control is the choice not to consume, not to live by the YOLO code (“you only live once”). Self-control prevents new forms of enslavement such as crime, addiction, exploitation of others, debasement of character.

The need for self-control as a partner with freedom has been recognized in every society. Lao Tzu advocated it in ancient China, Plato in Greece, Horace in Rome, Benjamin Franklin in America. Helen Keller, Mohandas Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, and virtually every current self-improvement guru has championed it.

Sorry if this sounds a little preachy. A Monitor cover story is on a subject that is tragic and disturbing and also close to home: the explosive use of heroin in North America, and even more so, in New England, and, frankly, in the part of New England where I live. One acquaintance’s son is in prison and his young wife dead of an overdose. Another has been through rehab. As you’ll see in Kristina Lindborg’s report, these are people who are struggling with a multitude of post-freedom factors: hedonism, the pain-pill culture of modern medicine, the cheap availability of heroin, and, perhaps most important, a paucity of spirituality.

That last point isn’t trivial in an age when skepticism, secularism, and smug atheism are considered cool. There’s a cost to switching off our spiritual sense. In early Christianity, the newfound feeling of freedom from sin, the past, and materialism was so thrilling that early theologians worked overtime to make sure the message was not interpreted as anything goes, that those freed did not think of themselves as mere consumers.

St. Paul urged discipline: “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything.” Freedom, he knew, cannot survive without self-control.

John Yemma is editor at large of the Monitor. He can be reached at yemma@csmonitor.com.

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