Freedom’s uncalculated returns

Dear Members of the Class of 2017:

This is a day of joy because this is a day of freedom!

Most of you are now free from the blare of early morning alarm clocks. You are forever free from bell schedules that structure your days. It feels good to be free!

The day I graduated from high school (last millennium), I too felt a great sense of freedom. I felt so free that I bleached my hair that very day. No matter that I missed the cool golden white I was shooting for and instead ended up with a bright orange mane for the summer. All that mattered was that I was free!

I was free to pour all my savings into a trip to Hawaii with my friends, and when the day of our return flight rolled around 10 days later, I felt absolutely free to extend my trip another seven days, despite my father’s protest. I told him that he was certainly free to disagree with me.

Yes, it feels good to be free!

But my question, dear graduates, is this: What does it really mean to be free?

Sure, we can sleep in and change our appearance, spend what we earn and vacation as long as possible, but does this capture the meaning of freedom?

While I may not have a complete answer to my own question, what I do have is a story.

A change of plans

My mother never met her birth mother, but I did.

I was driving down the New Jersey Turnpike when my mom called me from Southern California. 

She told me that she had just received a call from a biological half-sister that she’d never met who told her that their mother — the woman who put my mother up for adoption after an unexpected pregnancy at 17, who later in life married and raised her own family — that woman was no more than a couple days from dying.

And she was lying in a hospital bed … in New Jersey. 

My mom couldn’t make it in time to meet her birth mother before she died, so she asked me if I would go for her.

What?!!  Are you kidding me?!! I’m on vacation, blaring my Springsteen, on my way to the Jersey Shore. I was off the clock and I had things to do.

But somehow, saying no just didn’t seem like an option.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a room with someone who is dying. It’s a strange thing. It’s strange because you can’t escape the feeling that time is limited. You know there isn’t much else to do but be there. It’s strange — or it was for me — because there was nothing … to gain. 

I was there, really, just for her — this woman I’d never met before, who was dying. I was there for my mother, who couldn’t be there. 

But you know what was the strangest thing of all? Despite — or rather, because — I didn’t have anything to gain, I felt really free … and joyful. In a room filled with impending death, there was joy in freedom.  

The meaning of education

You may know that the ancient Greeks used to say that life is the art of learning to die well. 

Well, I don’t quite agree. 

I think back to a book you might have read, it’s called the “The Book Thief” (Alfred A. Knopf, $12.99). In the last line of the book, Death itself speaks, and Death admits: “I am haunted by humans.” 

Why?  Because we’re free.

Even in the face of death, when there is absolutely nothing we can take from each other, we’re free. In fact, we can be most free then.

Think about it: The law of competition dictates that it is those who learn how to get what they want out of others who reap the rewards; it is the ones who perfect that sly art of bending the world to their wishes who get ahead. 

I know all about that. I’ve become pretty good at that sly art myself: playing a situation, setting slight deceptions to get other people to move towards my preferences, making little hidden choices in favor of what’s profitable for me at the expense of what might be right or good for others. We learn these ways so we can survive and thrive in a competitive world. But do we really want to call that freedom?

Let us think instead of what we are celebrating today. We are celebrating you, both in your own accomplishments and in what others have given you. Today, you are graduates of a certain kind of education in freedom.

What was happening after those alarm clocks went off too early in the morning, and in between those bells that marked the passing of time in your days? Sure, there were lectures and quizzes and tests, but at its best the education you were given is more than the sum of its parts.

It might have been hard to recognize it because you were so immersed in it every day for the last four years and all the years of schooling before that, but what was really going on is that each of you were receiving a gift. I’m sure it rarely if ever felt like a gift you wanted, but that’s because the gift wasn’t in any one moment or thing. The gift was the whole effort. 

The whole of your education has been one grand, sweeping gesture of hope. With all the flaws and failings of your school and the educational system in general — flaws and failings that you probably see better than anyone else — what it all says if you really let yourself listen is that a great multitude have said that “You are worth investing in. We place our hope in you. Not for our sake, but for yours.”

The long view

No doubt, you have worked hard and so deserve our congratulations. But don’t forget that you’ve also received much from others — most especially your parents and those who raised you, alongside the faculty and staff that have educated and cared for you. You may never know all that they sacrificed for your wellbeing, the imperceptible ways they gave without thought of return. And that, my friends, touches on the true meaning of freedom: to give without concern for your own gain.    

That is the kind of freedom that I once recognized in that hospital room in New Jersey. Despite what I would have otherwise preferred, I found myself in a situation where I was free to be something for someone else, to give to someone else when there was no profit in it for me.

But think with me, just one last time, about that room. There was yet another dimension of freedom there, and this is what really haunts Death. Let’s call it the freedom of hope. 

Because some 45 years before that day, a young girl — your age — chose to give her child a life in a family ready to love her. She gave her child life; she let her child go.

She didn’t expect a return on that investment, but somehow she trusted that it was good. And two days before her death — all those many years later — she was visited not by her child, but by her child’s child. She received what she couldn’t have expected because she gave without seeking to gain. 

That is the kind of freedom that really haunts Death. It’s called hope.

Hope is freedom taking the long view. 

And today, dear graduates, is a day for you to hope. How do you hope to give to others what you have received? 

By all means, have some fun—go ahead: bleach your hair—but remember that from this day forth, your freedom will become real and it will become meaningful to the degree that you give yourself for the good of others.

So go on, enjoy your freedom.

Leonard J. DeLorenzo, Ph.D., is director of Notre Dame Vision in the McGrath Institute for Church Life and teaches theology at Notre Dame.