Some Thoughts about Personal Freedom


Is the absence of restrictions enough—or is true freedom something more?

On my street lives a little boy known as the Sidewalk King. This little boy cruises the neighborhood on his black and gold plastic racing trike, living in his own world of make-believe and heroic deeds. One of his favorite things to do is to back that little vehicle up against his father’s garage door and then—revving up all the power and energy at his command—shoot down the driveway, through the gutter, and out onto the street. Then, cranking the front end around, he pedals up the driveway again. If you are within a house or two, you can practically hear the engine throb.

His parents, understanding more than he does about the perils involved, have warned him and pleaded with him. Not long ago, his father found it necessary to give his young son a little spanking to help him understand how dangerous it is to ride out in the street. As he ran into the house he sobbed to his parents, “You just want to ruin all my fun.”

To the mind of a four-year-old, that is exactly what it appeared. But, oh, how wrong he was. His parents weren’t trying to ruin his fun; they were trying to keep him from harm, perhaps even death. Freedom to him was largely doing what he wanted without restraint and interference.

What does freedom mean? And is personal freedom the same as political freedom?

I know of another little boy who came home from school one day long ago to find a new rented piano in the living room. “What’s this piano here for?” he asked his mother.

“It’s for you,” she replied.

“For me?” he asked. “Why for me?”

“Because,” she said, “you are going to take piano lessons.”

He said he didn’t want to take piano lessons. But she had already vetoed that decision. In fact, she had already arranged for a teacher.

Well, this little boy began to miss a few lessons. One day his mother asked, “How was your piano lesson?”

He said, “Fine. I’m doing pretty well.”

“That’s interesting,” she said. “I just talked to your teacher, and she hasn’t seen you for a while.” He had been caught. He didn’t know what the punishment would be, but he knew it would be bad. Then his mother said, “Just for that, you may not take piano lessons.”

He tried to look punished, but inside he was an inferno of joy. Mother, he thought, you have hit on the perfect punishment. I hope you use it often. Within his heart he felt that he had just been liberated. He was free from practice, free from lessons, free from discipline, routine, and regimentation—free from all that seemed to limit his freedom.

When he grew to be a man, he was sitting one day in a church meeting during which a woman was to sing a solo. When her time to perform came, she walked up to the podium and announced, “My accompanist could not come today. I need someone to accompany me.” Looking over the congregation, she saw a man who used to teach piano. “Will you accompany me?” she asked him. The man came forward, and she handed him the music.

As he watched this transpire, my friend who had avoided music lessons thought, What would I have done if she had asked me? If she had asked me, I would have been free to do only one thing: to say no. Suddenly, he realized that what he had assumed to be one of the great liberating moments of his life—when his mother said, “You may not take lessons any more”—was in fact a moment of bondage, not freedom. As he sat in that church meeting, he might as well have been handcuffed, for he could not have played the piano if he had wanted to. The other man was free; he could choose to play or not to play. Ultimately, then, freedom is more a matter of capacity and ability than of permission.

Too often, we believe the myth that we are free to do whatever we want to do. True, most of us are free to develop any ability or skill we choose; but until we develop them, we remain in bondage to our own lack of capacity. Even in lands of great political freedom, I fear that many of us live in bondage. Misunderstanding the principle of freedom, we lead lives of limited capacity and, thus, diminished choice. We tell ourselves that the only reason we are not doing certain positive, productive things is that we don’t want to. If we don’t play the piano, for example, we like to think it’s because we don’t want to. Actually, we don’t play because we are not free to. Remember, if we are only free to choose one thing—that is, not to play—we are not really free.

The passage in 2 Nephi famous as the “opposition” verse deals with the kind of freedom I am referring to.

“For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my first-born in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility.” (2 Ne. 2:11.)

Further on in that chapter, we learn of the Fall and the Atonement, the processes by which mankind became free.

“And now, behold, if Adam had not transgressed he would not have fallen, but he would have remained in the garden of Eden. And all things which were created must have remained in the same state in which they were after they were created; and they must have remained forever, and had no end. “And they would have had no children; wherefore they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin.” (2 Ne. 2:22–23.)

So freedom is not just freedom from—freedom from interference, restraint, responsibility—although there certainly are things we want to be free from. But the greatest freedom, the freedom of God, is the freedom to do.

Ask yourself, “What am I free to do?” In the garden of Eden, Adam and Eve knew the freedom from. They were free from every discomfort and mortal pain. But they had to leave that idyllic place and enter the dreary world in order to have freedom to do.

With our many opportunities, we ought to constantly ask ourselves, “What freedom do I have today that I did not have a year ago? What new capacity do I have? Many of us spend our energies escaping freedom rather than embracing it. I would suggest that if you are not more free at the end of this year, if you do not have more capacity, then this year was not worth a great deal to you. What are you becoming free to do? Free to love more fully? To teach more effectively? To talk more clearly? What new choices will be yours? Remember what the Savior said to his disciples about freedom: “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:32.)

Very often, too, freedom means packing a burden. Sometimes we want to escape the burden, thinking that freedom would lie in that. A few years ago, I took my four-wheel-drive pickup into the mountains to get some firewood one late fall afternoon. The road up the canyon was covered with snow, and the higher I went, the deeper the snow. Soon I was far up, and the snow was deep. I pulled off the road into the brush and promptly got stuck. I moved several logs that were in front of the wheels, but I still couldn’t go. By this time it was getting dark. “Maybe someone will come along,” I thought. “While I’m waiting, I might as well cut up a little wood.” Soon I had a whole load of firewood, but still no one had come. “Well,” I thought, “I’d better start walking.”

Before I did, I decided to try just one more time. I put my truck in gear, and it just crawled out of that thick brush back onto the road. The load of wood had given the truck traction. What it could not do empty, it could do full.

We must not run around empty. Often we spend too much energy trying to escape our burdens. You can be married and be the elders quorum president and work—and change diapers. It is a misconception that too much work always destroys our freedom. Sometimes it’s not that we have too much to do, but that we don’t have enough and therefore are barely in gear and have no traction at all. Actually, freedom comes with the load.

Often, freedom is denial. The day I turned fifteen, my father took me to get my driver’s license. It was one of the greatest moments of my life. I passed the test and, with my driver’s license in my wallet, walked out of that office a new man. As I approached the car with my father, I said something like, “I’ll take it on the way home.”

So I drove home. On our way, there was a double turn on the gravel road that turned right, then quickly turned left. Mother and Dad always slowed down, but I took it at a pretty good speed. As we stopped in front of the house, I told my father nonchalantly, “I’ll be needing the car tonight.” I had already invited some of my friends to go with me to a ball game.

“No,” he said. “You’re not quite experienced enough to go out there in the winter over the pass.”

“All you ever say to me is no,” I complained.

Then my dad said something I didn’t understand at the time, but appreciate now. “I tell you no once,” he said, “so that I can tell you yes a thousand times.”

God is the greatest of all beings because, for one thing, he is the most free of all beings. And he has invited us to become like him. Occasionally he must say to each of us, “No you may not.” But in that single no a thousand yesses may be given birth.

May all of us develop a desire for the freedom that enables us to do. May we never forget that the freedom to do nothing may be of all bondage the most piteous and painful and lamentable. We are here to devote our energy to acquiring godlike abilities and capacities. May we have the wisdom to reach out and grasp this opportunity with fervor.

[photos] Photography by Marty Mayo

Robert M. Wilkes, chairman of the Recreation Education Department at Ricks College, is the father of six. He currently serves as president of the Rexburg Idaho College Second Stake.