I am all about freedom: freedom of mind, freedom of time, freedom from dogma, freedom from people who might drag me down, freedom from self-imposed restrictions. I dream about a dimension beyond this one: a realm that includes none of the limitations I despise. This is what Moshiach — a true messianic age — would mean to me. Time would never run out. Choosing one activity would never mean abandoning something else: when one friend’s party and another friend’s concert happen at the same time, I could push my hands through some kind of barrier and make it possible to attend both and stay as long as I want at each event. At a restaurant, I could order absolutely everything, because food is unconnected to health and weight, and it costs no money. I could go to Ubud and Dubai at the same time… and still not miss any happenings in Boston or New York. Or even in New Jersey, in the off chance that something amazing was planned in the state where I grew up.
In my current dimension, I never have enough freedom. Pretty much all of my agonizing and obsessing revolves around trying to maintain as much free rein as I possibly can… and sometimes it backfires. I don’t buy the tickets because I want to wait until I’m sure nothing more exciting will come up during that time… but then they might be sold out. I don’t make plans with friends because what if, right when I’m supposed to be at the café, the mystical reality that underlies our world begins to touch my mind and my soul, crying out for my attention so I can gain the insights that will bring me peace? Or what if I’m eating the most delicious glazed jelly donut ever twenty minutes before our meeting and I want to take an hour to eat it very slowly, sitting right at the table with my donut, not interrupting what could be the most glorious gastronomical experience I’ll ever have? So a week goes by with no plans at all, but nothing remotely miraculous happens while I hang out on my own.
I procrastinate with buying plane tickets, never sure what will be the ideal amount of time to spend in a place. Terror engulfs me whenever I come close to sealing the deal. What if something marvelous would have happened to me if only I had stayed one extra day? What if (and I don’t even want to express this, but I will say “God forbid” and the Hebrew equivalent “chas v’shalom,” and ask the powers that be to multiply my prayers an infinite number of times) something horrible will happen on the very flight I choose among all the options? For that matter, what if something wondrous transpires right here in Cambridge, MA the day before my return date? There’s no knowing. It’s terrifying. And terror is, in a way, the inverse of freedom.
A few years ago, I attended a “death café” in a lively older woman’s Upper West Side, Manhattan apartment. Death cafés happen all over the world: they bring people together to discuss the often-taboo topic of our own eventual demise. I told the host I was afraid to die because I feared losing my consciousness, my self, my mind, my soul, and my connections with other souls. She asked where I heard that this would happen. And I was like “Isn’t that the default assumption?” Her immediate answer: “I’ve barely even heard of that possibility. It’s certainly not what I believe. Try living for one week as if you are absolutely certain that you will never lose any of those things, even after death.”
It was an astoundingly wonderful idea… in theory. And maybe in practice too, but I wouldn’t know. It’s been years now, and I’ve made no attempt to follow her suggestion. And I just realized: following it, for me, would involve extreme freedom, ultimate freedom, freedom from fear of repercussion and from a sense that life is constricted and stingy. I could stuff myself with fried Oreos and enormous slabs of extra fatty corned beef, because… what’s the worst that could happen? I could skydive, experiment with extreme mind-altering drugs like ayahuasca and LSD, smoke the sheesha at the cool Middle Eastern café every night while I listen to all the weird conversations. If the urge overtook me, I could jump out my 9th floor window because the breeze felt glorious and the street below seemed to call.
Living as if I’m sure my consciousness is eternal is entirely too dangerous, even for one week. The pleasures I’d enjoy might be painful to give up. Far worse, one of these daredevil acts might kill me and my consciousness in one blinding swoop. What if, in fact, my death café host is wrong about immortality of self… and all those nonspiritual science-y types are right?
For that matter, what if a mishap didn’t kill me but wound up destroying my mobility, independence, physical abilities, or bodily wholeness? Chas v’shalom! God forbid an infinite number of times! I am not the sort of person who would adjust to that and regain my happiness: I know it. So I have to be careful. In other words, I have to curtail my immediate freedom to a fairly large degree.
A professor of mine from college once advised me: “The only reason to give up freedom now is to gain more freedom in the future.” I found that brilliant. Work hard now and you’ll reap ultimate rewards that can boost your leverage in the world, and your ability to live as you choose. Refrain from spending your money now, and you’ll have it later on, when its benefits may mean far more to you.
But, of course, life is often not fair. The people who hang out and smoke sheesha every night for many years often attain all manner of freedoms and resources, while those who slave away wind up with far less. It’s impossible to know how much freedom to give up at any given time to achieve greater freedom down the road. For all you know, that time slogging away at work when you could have been hanging out with a bunch of ducks by the river will yield no benefit at all. Maybe the ducks would have inspired you to write something that would achieve extraordinary success. Maybe someone sitting by the ducks would have chatted with you, loved your free-spirited energy, and offered you an opportunity so grand you never would have imagined the possibility while plugging away at your desk at home.
Right now, it’s late at night, and I’m sitting at my desk at home. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else, so that’s not a problem. But my stomach feels sharp from stress and confusion. I’ve decided to take advantage of some of the freedom I have: time off from work in the summer and a certain amount of resources to put towards enjoyment, learning, and, of course, alleviating the terror that has followed me for many years. It’s an important move for me, and I want to do it right. I want to meet the people and have the experiences that will boost me. But I don’t want to over-plan and squelch my love for spontaneity. I want to leave and return home at very good times, auspicious times, times that feel natural and bound organically with the rhythms I feel.
And it’s hard because I don’t tend to feel rhythms. I tend to feel fear, disorganization, and lack of control. I don’t tend to feel free. I think, up to a point, I can change this for myself. Shift my perception. Decide that whatever I do is good, and right, and the best possible situation.
It’s even possible that whatever I do is somehow ordained, part of some larger organization or meaning. Maybe I’m free and yet not free. For all I know, I sense that I’m making choices that actually aren’t choices at all, because in fact something is pushing me along, propelling me to end up in exactly the spot where I need to be at any given time.
That sure doesn’t seem to be the case. Everything appears so chaotic, so random, so messy, so full of the worst hazards and nightmares. But what if that’s all an illusion? I am open to that. Maybe I should be a bit more open to it. Even thinking about this possibility calms me down. My stomach feels less sharp. I almost — but not quite — sensed a wave of peace just now.
What if I lived like that — like everything is part of some kind of larger plan? That is also dangerous. I could sit around savoring cheeses, crackers, and condiments all day… except when I’m savoring fudge squares or lamb chops. If it’s all ordained, why stress myself out even slightly? I’ll be where I need to be no matter what I do or don’t do, so I might as well maximize my short-term pleasure. Very likely, this would lead to severe health problems and lack of productivity.
But I could take a hybrid approach. I don’t want my ordained fate to be health crises and no accomplishments. So I can work with the fate concept and try, just a bit, to maximize my outcomes, while knowing at the same time that everything will wind up happening as it should. Even the idea makes me happy. This simple concept makes me feel like I can go to bed in peace.
And it’s so strange, because, in some ways, this notion suggests limited freedom at most. It implies that something other than my frazzled choices and harried actions will bring me to the places I find, the things I see, the voices and the music I hear, the foods I wind up tasting, and the scents that surround me at any given time. I want freedom so badly, and yet I also want something more.
Can I believe in the probability that something more is out there? I do believe in the possibility, but probability is a higher level that provides much more serenity. A brainstorm just hit me. I should live as if a combination of my efforts and some mystical, higher force will get me where I’m supposed to be. It will happen, with my help and the help of whatever organizing principle(s) or force(s) might be at work. I can’t sit and eat cheese and fudge all day, because my actions have agency and value in this process. But I don’t need to obsess over every detail, because, in the end, the higher forces will kick in, shape the ragged edges of my well-meaning but sometimes shoddy efforts, and push me where I need to be.
I love this approach. Simply considering it is bringing me joy. I even feel relaxed, just a little bit! Can my emotions be pointing me towards the truth? Right now, that seems probable. Let me capture that impression, bottle it up, and hold onto it forever.