“I’d Like” or “I Have to”? Thoughts on Personal Freedom

George Wilson, S.J.


Volume 28 Number Three Fall 2007, PAGES 24-28


Afew years ago I was talking to a friend who had been elected to the leadership team of her province. I asked her how things were going. She said, “We’re making progress. We have picked off all of our sisters who were drinking or using medications too much. We’ve gotten them into solid rehabilitation programs. Now we’re starting to go after the ladies who spend three or four hours in front of the boob tube every night.”

The concrete anecdote provides a good opening for some reflection on the difference between healthy desire and unhealthy compulsion.

Perhaps the first thing in the story that might cause us to sit up and pay attention is the implication that the realm of unhealthy attachments is not limited to those forms of compulsion that are socially disparaged. Over the years American society has gradually developed a consensus concerning the destructiveness of addiction to alcohol and drugs and, to a lesser degree of intensity, to gambling. (A consensus on guns is apparently light years away.) Relating that reality to the original story, I would venture the bet that an unusu­al predilection for much TV-watching would generally be met with “Well, what’s the problem?”

The point is that we can become inordinately attached (read:addicted) to anything. And the fact that the attachment would be seen as relatively harmless by our society should not be the determining factor in how we evalu­ate what’s going on. The question should not be “How is this viewed by my local culture?” but rather “What is it doing to me, to my spirit?” And then, by implication, what is it doing to my community and its mission?” Not how it’s viewed but how harmful it is.

Readers of this journal will quickly note that I am circling around the Principle and Foundation of the Spiritual Exercises. The kinds of things that can become inordinate attachments start out as creatures. As goods. We must never lose sight of the fact that they are good in themselves and can be of service in the work of the kingdom. It’s not a matter of denigrating these goods. Let’s leave that to those much-caricatured preachers who fulminate about “drinkin’ and dancin’ and cussin’ and he-in’-n-she-in.’” The goods remain goods. What we need to explore is the way they con­tribute to or impede our spiritual growth.


It’s a matter of relationship. There are two poles: myself as subject and the object which attracts me. Since the two poles remain no matter what I do (I remain myself and that spiffy computer remains just a computer), what happens when the relationship shifts and becomes noxious? The computer or the TV or the Sunday Times or the shopping mall or American Idol will still be out there unchanged no matter how I decide to relate to it. (I’m spreading my targets around, to illustrate that none of us is untouched by the ten­dency I’m trying to understand.) The change must orig­inate not in the object (which could be a person, by the way) but in me.

At this point I must note that I am not a therapist. It should be clear that I do not pretend to the competence required to understand and deal with all that constitutes full-blown, pathological addictions. My target might be described, rather, as the ordinary garden-variety neurot­ic attachments that seem simply to arrive with the humanity of each and every one of us. Perhaps this is the place to note also that precisely because they aren’t mat­ter for societal disapproval these attachments may be all the more difficult to detect. As the process unfolds and the pattern becomes ingrained, each one becomes sim­ply a part of our personal wallpaper—difficult to change because it doesn’t even engage our attention. There aretoo many other realities more compelling.

So while acknowledging the possibility that all sorts of deeper psychological, or even biological, mech­anisms—genetic make-up, family dynamics, traumatic events, projections of every kind, etc.—might be at work, I propose that we look at some realities that are more accessible to our choices for growth.


However they originate, the fundamental reality or characteristic feature of these attachments is that they diminish our freedom. As they take over, we become less and less able to “just say no” to them. When pre­sented with a potential choice to respond to the attrac­tive object, we discover that the playing field is not even. The attractive option, as inconsequential as it may seem (can anything be less consequential than playing Free Cell?), so occupies the field of our attention that in effect there is no choice taking place. For that moment the possibility of doing something different is not on the menu. Our response becomes automatic, mechanical. There is no freedom, no choice, no decision, because those possibilities all suppose that we find ourselves presented with multiple available options. And in the case of an unfree compulsion there may indeed “objec­tively” be other options “out there,” but in effect they don’t really exist for the one so caught.

Does it need to be said that one of the prime con­ditions for spiritual maturity is the presence of interior freedom? We are called by the Lord to stand within this amazing collection of created goods, to be as present to it all as possible, and then choose with full freedom where we will put our energies to work in this world. The ultimate root of our call is that we are made in the image and likeness of the God who freely chose to cre­ate this particular collection of goods we call the world rather than another, out of love.

Free choice is not simple and it is not easy.

I just used the expression “to be present” to this moment. The reality is that disordered attachments diminish that ability to stand open to the fullness of the moment. Parts of reality are blocked out and made inaccessible by the power of the dominating impulse. We are present to only one facet of the full reality of the moment. And yet it is only when we confront the total­ity of the situation we find ourselves in, with all of its competing attractions up front and personal, that we can make the free choices that make us responsible agents. And responsibility and accountability are the only conditions that befit the dignity bestowed on us in our creation. In freedom we become our own person, able to sustain the aloneness that always and inevitably accompanies personal choice. To achieve that freedom we have to do two things in the same moment. We have to hold in consciousness all those attractions (the “goods,” in Ignatian terms) that are like hungry chil­dren clamoring for our attention and favorable response, and then actively resist (read: put to death for this moment) all but one of them. Free choice is not simple and it is not easy.


From experience it seems safe to say that it is all but humanly impossible to live at every moment at the peak of conscious freedom as I have just described. The demand for such full attention to all possible options at every moment would drain our limited psy­chic resources very quickly. If we expended on every action the concentrated energy put out by a three-year­old trying to tie his or her shoes each morning we would accomplish precious little. Only as much as the three-year-old does, in fact.

So in order to increase our capability to meet the greater complexities of more mature living, we develop ways of transforming those quite necessary tasks into routines. We organize our energies in such a way that it requires no psychic attention to perform them. We reduce the energies required, by developing habitual patterns so that we can eventually tie our shoes while simultaneously composing the great American novel or plotting a faculty revolt. If asked whether we tied our shoes this morning, we can only respond, “I must have; but I don’t remember doing it.”

Developing automatic responses like that is of course essential for getting on with life. Over time we can relegate whole gobs of daily living to the level of habitual response. I have never forgotten the experi­ence Fr. Bill Wade, S.J., shared with us Jesuit students in a psychology class. He had for years said Mass at 6:30 each morning for a group of nuns. After distribut­ing Communion to the regular community he would take the Eucharist to the sisters in the infirmary. One morning, when he returned from the infirmary and was putting the ciborium back in the tabernacle he genu­flected, turned around, and was prepared to begin dis­tribution all over. The sisters had to tell him that he had already given Communion. He had performed the action for so many years that it had become a series of reflex actions, a long chain of stimulus-response: gen­uflect equals open tabernacle. He was on cruise control with no real freedom to change course. He would have become free only if something out of the ordinary had jogged his attention and compelled him to stop and choose the next step.

The story can help us to appreciate the difference between two levels of more or less routine behavior. Automatisms are patterns that have been relegated to the limbic level of the brain, operating “below” the range of any genuine consciousness. Habits, on the other hand, though they no longer claim our energies the way they did when we first began to develop them, function nonetheless with a low but real degree of con­sciousness and control. Each time we exercise them there is a momentary awareness that we could just as well choose a different path. Once we have formed the habit and grown accustomed to its practice it might take only a small expenditure to change course but there is an accompanying intuitive sense that we can choose to do so if we wish. In an habitual mode of act­ing the unchosen options remain on the periphery of consciousness; it may have become easier to hold their attractiveness at bay, but we are aware of them. Action flowing from acquired virtue may b e relatively easy but it is not automatic. The trick in life is to deter mine the matters we can safely allow to become automatic and those that demand the conscious attention needed if we are to function as free, moral subjects. Unfortunately we have the capability to become so pro­ficient at generating routines that even more significant components of life than shoe-tying are allowed to become automatic. It’s seven o’clock so we’re in our Lazy boy ready for Jeopardy. Without thinking.


I mentioned the aloneness of personal responsibil­ity earlier. That raises a paradox, which in its turn illu­minates the complexity of our ascent to freedom. Each of us indeed bears the sole responsibility for our choic­es, and yet we always have to make those choices with­in the context of the communities that have shaped our evaluative skills. We are social animals and that means that the objects proposed for our choice do not swim into our consciousness solely “on their own.” They arrive already weighted with the valence attached to them by others. They bear price tags, as it were. If those who did the weighting are our parents or imme­diate family, or others with whom we have shared daily intimacy for years, the power of the attached valuations can be vast, all but obliterating our freedom to choose otherwise. We are products of all the cultures in whose waters we have swum. Free but with conditioned free­dom. To use another image: we grow into adulthood with scripts we have learned although no one ever real­ly “taught” them to us, and we fool ourselves if we think it is easy to re-write our lines. But that’s what growth in freedom is all about.

Our social environments are multiple and they are semiotic. They send us messages. We are constantly being presented (a better word might be “bombarded”) with scripts telling us what we ought to think and what we should choose. They are designed to draw us to move some particular option to the top of our accus­tomed set of priorities. To understand them we fre­quently use the metaphor of pressure: “Oh, you simply have to see the latest film of (you fill in the blank: per­haps Sean Connery? Eddie Murphy? Kate Winslet?)” One of the environments we swim in (frequently depicted as a malicious influence) is, of course, the world of commercial advertising. We are awash in such messages. Every possible form of business presents itself as absolutely needed if we are to function in our society. (Perhaps more significant than the sex or vio­lence we see “up front” on TV is the power of the 22 minutes of every TV hour “pressuring” us to buy some product or service–which we think we are not “paying” any attention to. Our systems seem wired to be alert to signals of sex or abusive behavior, while a spontaneous trip to the mall seems quite innocent. “Not gonna buy anything.” It’s “relaxing,” you know.)

The power of the world of advertising has been worked over in many books and articles (which is not to say that just because we have read about it we have acquired the skills to resist it). My own experience is that in weighing the power of advertising we may be inclined to overlook the social networks that actually turn the potential attraction of the advertised product into a compelling option. For example, an academic might have ignored any number of ads, but let a col­league remark how much he or she was able to accom­plish with a spiffy new high-speed gadget and the sale is all but made. We are pack animals after all, and the need to fit in lies deep in our psyches. The solidarity which is so important to our well-being as humans brings with it trade-offs in terms of potential obstacles to personal freedom.


One of the forces that can make the achievement of free choice for a religious more difficult is the reali­ty of community living itself. How can that be?

Let’s say that a given religious, man or woman, genuinely wants to live a simple life-style, to be as free as reasonably possible from the pressures of upward mobility that characterize American culture. Ironically, life in community can make that option more difficult to live out. Communities today have leaders who, pre­cisely because they see themselves as called to create a good life for their members, have an eye out for enhancements that can ease the burdens of the apos­tolate and community living itself. Result: a communi­ty TV that is still quite adequate for viewing will morph into high-definition, on a flat–and large–screen. The dining-room fare begins to include more options than would be evident at the table of the biological family of most members of the community.

Each of the objects of such leadership decisions are goods in themselves. And it’s true that the individ­ual religious remains free to make personal choices within the array presented by the community (although in some instances it can require asking for a special menu). In any case, there are three common outcomes. First, it may simply require from the individual a little extra energy to live the simple style professed in the community’s mission statement. Second, the continued presence of amenities may gradually become uncriti­cally accepted. The communal existence of the group runs on automatic pilot. Thing s once seen as merely desirable become “of course.” And the third possible outcome–hopefully less common, but we have all seen it–is that what was originally merely desirable becomes expected. What was at first simply an objective improvement becomes subjectively an entitlement. Want becomes need. When that happens we are far indeed from freedom.


When it comes to a community’s tendency toward an ever higher standard of living, the mere proclama­tion of policies on simple living won’t cut it. There is no substitute for the difficult process of communal reflec­tion and decision. Standards may be enunciated in con­gregational policies, but if they are genuine policies and not mechanistic rules, the burden of interpreting their consequences for the concrete local group falls on those who must live with the choices. Whether the individual members in a local community feel genuinely free to express discomfort when their personal standards might challenge the group’s prevailing thinking is itself an indicator of the maturity of the group. Ironically, though, the burden of creating such a healthy climate of free disagreement falls largely on the shoulders of precisely the leader who is drawn to provide the best in the first place. The benevolence of the leader can lead to “decisions” that happen by default.

My purpose in raising the element of community pressure is simply to capture the process by which options that begin as desirable turn into needs or expectations. To suggest proposals for improvement of the community’s decision-making would take us beyond the scope of the present article. But what can we say to help the individual deal with the human ten­dency to allow even serious matters to be controlled by inertia and unfreedom?

Over the years both individuals as well as society at large have attempted to use negative measures to deal with the addicting potential of comfortable options. The success record is spotty at best. On the individual level we have experienced the inadequacy of rigid ascetical practices of earlier eras, while on the nation­al level, the policy of Prohibition probably created more unintended negative effects than positive. Nancy Reagan’s famous “Just Say No” campaign fared little better. Today we have programs aimed at getting teen­age girls to pledge to their fathers in a public ceremo­ny that they will remain celibate until marriage. There are indications that such programs create as much hypocrisy and deceit as abstinence (not because the young women are malicious but because they are developmentally too young to make such an absolute commitment and then they are compelled to dissemble when they fail).

Experience seems to show that it is only the power of a positive commitment that can control the attrac­tion to freedom-reducing behaviors. People with a focused sense of mission are not easily sidetracked or lulled into wasted energies. Mission creates a height­ened sense of awareness. When attractions that might otherwise tend to dominate consciousness arrive on scene they do not find an empty slate. They are met, instead, by a “preoccupying” alternative that is already well rooted. And people who have a commitment to mission find great help in a practice such as the exam­ination of conscience or the Buddhist practice of mind­fulness. Such attentiveness helps to lift into conscious­ness behaviors that might otherwise slide impercepti­bly into a routine that encroaches inappropriately on our freedom. A conscious “yes” to an attractive mission or goal makes the “no” to distracting options less like­ly. The choice for life makes it possible to put to death an otherwise quite attractive diversion.

The strongest commitment of all arises from the desire to respond in love to a Lord who loves us first without reserve. Jesus called himself “the truth” which confers radical freedom. And Paul came to the realiza­tion that if we are seized by the love of Christ, nothing else can get in the way.

Father George Wilson, S.J., does human- sys­tems facilitation with Management Design Institute out of Cincinnati, OH. E-mail address: gbwilson@choice.net

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