Fr. Ron Rolheiser, omi


February 8, 1999

In life there is a perennial tension between claiming our own needs and freedom and yet at the same time trying to live lives that are unselfish, generous and properly dutiful towards family, community, country, Church and God.

Where do we find the balance between being an egoist and a doormat?

On one hand, we have an irrepressible need to be true to ourselves, to live in freedom, to be creative with the talents God has given us, and to not let sick circumstances or sick persons steal our lives away. This is a healthy urge, a God-given one. To ignore or kill this drive, unless it is to produce something more lifegiving within us, results in anger, bitterness and a certain kind of death.

As Parker Palmer puts it: "No punishment anyone lays on you could possibly be worse than the punishment you lay on yourself by conspiring in your own diminishment." Martin Luther King used to say the same thing, challenging his audiences never to conspire with forces that diminished them.

As he put it, in his now-famous I Have a Dream address: We, all of us, will one day in our lives have to stand up for something we believe in, something that is integral to our person and freedom and is being taken away from us. If because of weakness or fear, fear of losing security, friends, reputation, job, comfort, livelihood, family or even our very lives, we do not stand up – from that moment on we will begin to die and the loss of life we experience in that will be much greater than anything we would have lost had we suffered the consequences of protest.

Those are strong words, but Gospel words. Simply put: We do not love or serve anyone by being a doormat; community is not served by any of us enabling evil to continue; and sanctity does not ask anyone to conspire in his or her own diminishment.

On the other hand, the naive pursuit of freedom and self-development can be just as death-dealing as its opposite. First, this side of heaven, there are no truly free persons. The individual pursuit of freedom and creativity is a slippery road with many narcissistic land-mines.

One might recall a line in a song by The Eagles a few years ago: "And when you're looking for your freedom, nobody seems to care!" A good question might be: "Why should anyone care? Why should anyone care whether I find and feel a free wind beneath my sails?"

Obviously, however, we ourselves do care and that care is healthy and legitimate. However, we should not be too naive as to where that freedom might be found. C.S. Lewis, in trying to explain the forces that eventually brought as independent and strong a man as himself to his knees, wrote this testimony in his autobiography: "The harshness of God is kinder than the softness of men and God's compulsion is our liberation."

Jesus would agree. In his life and teaching there is the constant motif that we find life only by giving it away, that we experience freedom only through obedience, and that self-giving within community is more important than individual achievement.

In Jesus' view, we are not meant to be doormats, but we are meant to sacrifice our lives, comfort, private dreams and yes, even our careers, for love, friendship, family, community, neighbourhood, country, Church and God.

We do not help anyone by enabling what is sick to continue. But community is only possible when we renounce many of our private freedoms and dreams.

So where does that leave us? Where do we find the road between being too selfish to be in community and being someone who, because he or she is too bitter or wounded, is not much use within community? Where is that fine line between being an egoist and a doormat?

There is no clear answer to this question and what is called for at one moment in our lives may be different at another time. What is clear is that we always live in tension between two great truths: On the one hand, Shakespeare is right: This above all else, to thine own self be true! The proclivity to be free, creative, and ourselves, is God-instilled and needs to be heeded.

On the other hand, what is just as true is that the road that leads to real freedom and fulfillment does not, at the end of the day, take us off on some solo quest where we are "looking for our freedom" and trying to leave some unique, personal mark on the planet.

The hard-commitment, dram-duty and self-sacrifice demanded by family, community and Church, are also part of that road. And so we must be true to ourselves, even as we remember that in love's obedience lies our liberation.