The Paradox Of Freedom

There have been two experiences in my life when I felt utterly and completely free. To outward appearances, they may seem completely different, but the internal experience was really the same.

Photo by Katerina Kerdi on Unsplash

The most recent was the first time I went parachuting, beginning with the moment when my jump master pointed at me, signifying that it was my turn to step out the door of the small Cessna. I leaned forward on my left knee and I pushed my right foot out through the open door of the plane, into the 80 MPH wind stream. My foot felt for the step beneath the door. When I found it I leaned forward, shifting some of my weight onto it, and at the same time I stretched my right hand out the door, reaching for the long, solid strut that branched diagonally from the bottom of the cabin to the wing above us.

Once I have the hard white strut in my hand, I shift more of my weight outside the plane, pushing myself into full torrent of the wind. I put my left hand on the strut. I feel my cheeks bellow in the wind as I put my left foot on the step. Once I had both hands securely on the strut I step off.

I was now hanging free in the blasting air, looking upwards at my white-knuckled hands, knowing the green earth was 3500 feet below my dangling feet.

I was oddly certain I would do this now, because I knew there was no turning back. All I could do was to cast myself into the wind, trusting that the thin static line attached to the plane will pull my chute open. The terror rushes through me like the wind, but along with it came a strange exhalation, because I knew my willingness to risk death gained me a starring role in my own Indiana Jones movie.

I look up at the underside of the wing, and the stenciled injunction to “Smile!” I realize the picture may be the last ever taken of me. I look to my left, the jump master gives me the thumbs up — my cue to go.

I let go of the plane. I hang suspended in a “Schrodinger's Cat” moment, knowing my world would turn over according to the winds of the chords around the parachute on my back.

I didn’t even feel like I was falling, because any sensation of gravity’s pull was submerged beneath the surprise of an optical illusion: when I released my grip on the airplane it seemed to leap out of my hands, launched upwards like a balloon made buoyant with my hopes of staying alive.

My freedom lived in my willingness to let go, to stake everything on a dare. When I felt the chute gain a purchase of the air, and slow my descent to that of a gentle breeze, the world beneath me had a welcoming brilliance.

The other experience of complete freedom was entirely different on the surface. Rather than a physical challenge to my existence, I was a participant in the sacrament of matrimony. I resisted the public side of it, I wanted to take our vows in private because, knowing my social anxieties. I felt I wouldn’t be fully present. It would be like all the other occasions and ceremonies of my life — emotionally empty and suffocated with anxiety.

But the day, and the experience of taking of my vows in the church in front of our friends and families, was totally different than I expected. I slept like a baby the night before, and I rose and put my tux on alone, feeling a strange, quite unexpected calm. I felt like I was moving towards something unknown, but I felt strong and confident that all would be good. I stood calmly in church with my best man, and my happiness bloomed as I saw my bride approach me. That confidence, that sense of inner strength and serenity, peaked in the taking of our vows. Outwardly the vows were words, but I felt a fiery certitude as I spoke to her, and promised before God that I was bound to her forever. For better, for worse.

Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash

In that moment, in making that solemn promise to the woman that God made for me, I felt freer than I’d ever had before. I’d never felt like that before, and that sense of ecstatic blossoming was something I remembered, many years later when I let go of the airplane. I was as surprised at my feeling of strength, and happiness, when I held her hand and spoke my vows, as I was years later when that plane leaped out of my hands.

Looking back now, I’ve developed a belief in the theological claim that my life was meant to be given away. Those two occasions are only the most striking examples of the happiness I’ve gained when I left the safe harbors of my life and put myself in positions of great risk. My willingness to take that first step out of the plane was the outgrowth of a process where I signed up for a jump class, and joined the others in the cabin of the plane, putting myself in a position where I’d be embarrassed to back out. Similarly, the process of planning a wedding, that very public wedding that filled me with dread, was a way of placing myself in a position where I’d have to burst through my fears.

Looking back, I realize I’ve wasted a lot of time and effort in my life preserving a route to the exits in much that I do. I’ve learned that my freedom wasn’t to be found in hedging my bets, lest all would be lost. It wasn’t to be found giving only a part of myself at a time, so that if things don’t work out I have something to fall back on. No, for me the exhalation of freedom always came from giving all of myself at once, with reckless abandon.