Have you ever seen a bird?
Of course you have! What am I even saying?
Well, regardless, I have always wanted to be a bird.
It’s just that the freedom of birds fascinates me. To soar to heights beyond human capacity of their own power, to glide in the breeze at incredible speed, to sit, perched upon peeks, at home in the heights; this is all in a day's work for a bird. Yet we humans, we have had to struggle and connive to create brutish machines to force our way into the skies, doing with exertion what birds have done for millennia with ease.
These were the thoughts running through my head as I sat on the jetty in the wildlife preserve down the street from me, on the Jersey shore (pictured above). More than the freedom of flight though, I was pondering how wonderfully simple birds lives must be. Unburdened by cognition, birds live a life of relative ease. Devoid of thought, birds are altogether free of worry, or at least most worries. They never have to question who they are, what they want, what their purpose is, or why they are here. We, on the other hand, are often weighed down with such pressing questions.
That’s when I got to thinking, wouldn’t it be nice to be a bird? Sure, the livelihood of birds isn’t always the best, but neither are the living conditions of many humans. Besides, how much freer would man be if he weren’t, well, man. Should man forsake his rationality, he would also abandon the often unnecessary nature of forethought, guilt, shame, worry, stress, and he would also greatly curb the power of fear over him.
Thus, from these observations of human existence, I resolved that day out on the jetty to reincarnate myself as a bird, should I somehow be given the chance to do so.
After all, who wouldn’t want to look like this?
You see, devoid of rationality, birds are altogether free of a life filled with questions and choices. We, on the other hand, are not. Faced with the difficulty of freedom, we are forced to make onerous choices and to live by these choices. We must mind numbingly pick this and pick that every day of our lives. And, we must hold ourselves accountable or we will be held accountable by others for the choices we’ve made.
In essence, freedom is demanding, and often times it can be more burdensome than liberating.
So we are stuck. We can’t actually become birds. (In all reality this is probably for the best, I mean all birds can really do is fly and that’s not that cool). And living as a human being means we are often and ironically weighed down by our freedom.
What then do we do?
Dietrich von Hildebrand speaks of true inner freedom as “a sovereign attitude of mind rising above the situation” (24). What he means is that inner freedom, which can never be taken from us (whereas outer or exterior freedom can, say if someone were to throw you in jail), is the ability to make decisions regardless of the circumstances. Human freedom then is the power, against all odds, to choose.
Thus, we never, so long as we are cognizant, forfeit our ability to transcend the situation and decide who or what it is we want to be or do. We never, in essence, lose our freedom.
Hildebrand and his translators very carefully elected to use the word ‘sovereign’, which means to possess supreme or ultimate power, or to be a supreme ruler, superior to all others. Thus, in having a sovereign freedom, we have a freedom of immeasurable - and I mean immeasurable - ability. Birds may soar to incredible heights, but it is human freedom that cannot be touched, soared above, or held down.
If we truly want to be free then, we need to stop trying to escape ourselves. We so often think that it is our circumstances that enslave us. That, because we suffer x,y, or z, we aren’t free. Therefore we do this and that in order to avoid doing what it is we ought or need to do. In actuality though, if we want to be free, we have to stop running and start making decisions to overcome our circumstances and to be who it is we ought to be in the face of them.
Only then will we be truly at home in the heights, free as a bird. When we elect to be who we are regardless of our circumstances, and indeed, in the face of all our adversity, this is when we fly higher than any bird has ever flown.
Thus, quit looking to the skies, face your circumstances, and make a choice. Ask yourself first, who are you? And then, who ought you to be?
Now go and be it.
(1) Image 2
(2) Image 3
(3) Dietrich von Hildebrand. The Dietrich von Hildebrand LifeGuide. p.24
(4) Image 4