Freedom & Liberty
A LOUD AND urgent pounding came from Lucia’s front door, rousing her from her home office where she worked on her latest book. “Coming, coming, coming!” she called, hurrying to the door.
A quick look out the window alongside the doorframe told her the
knocker was her friend Adele from across the street, looking upset. Lucia opened the door and asked, “Are you okay? What’s wrong?”
“Oh, Lucia,” Adele said, holding back tears. “The police just came to my house!”
“The police? Come in. Let me get you some tea.” Lucia guided Adele back to the kitchen. “Is Eduardo all right? And Ann?” Lucia had dread thoughts about Adele’s husband and college-age daughter.
“No, it’s my nephew Alfonso. I lied, Lucia! I can’t believe I lied to the police.” Adele collapsed to a chair and covered her face, sobbing loudly. Lucia embraced her.
“I started water for Chamomile tea. It will calm your nerves. Now, what sort of lie did you tell the police and why did they come to your house?”
Adele wiped her tears. “They wanted to know if Alfonso was with me two nights ago. I said he was, but it was a lie, Lucia. I haven’t seen him for nearly two months. I guessed he told them he was with me, otherwise why would they have come to my house?”
Lucia sat down at the table, waiting for the kettle to boil. “You know how we talk about the shows on TV where they figure out mysteries from clues? Let’s try that. You asked the question. What can you figure out?”
“I saw a story on the eleven o’clock news that a gang robbed the bodega at Fourteenth and Elm two nights ago. They said they thought it was connected to a couple other robberies.”
“And you think Alfonso is involved?”
“Estella has been so worried that he’s taking up with a gang. When he was younger, he always did so well in school. Now, he’s failing everything. He shaved his head, his pants hang down so his underwear shows. I have trouble even thinking about it.” More tears flowed.
The kettle whistled merrily, and Lucia prepared two cups. “Call your sister. Find out where Alfonso is now and if she wants us to help out,” Lucia instructed.
From Estella, Adele learned that Alfonso was supposed to be in school — supposed being the active word. And Estella did want their help. She was also worried what her husband would do if he found out Alfonso was hanging with a gang and robbing merchants.
“What school does he go to?” Lucia asked.
“Martin Luther King Junior Middle,” Adele replied.
“How old is he?” Lucia asked, surprised.
“He just turned thirteen.”
“A very difficult age. Lots of hormones. Trying to figure out his
place in the world. Hopefully, we caught him in time.”
Lucia and Adele sat in Adele’s car in front of the school, waiting for classes to end. The facade needed renovation, and certainly the inside needed work, but the city and state governments cut budgets, and there was no money. “How can we expect young people to do well if we don’t show them respect by providing a positive place of learning?” Lucia wondered.
The final bell rang and students spilled out of the building. “There
he is,” Adele noted, pointing out a short, skinny kid mingling with other boys dressed like him.
“Call him over,” Lucia said.
“Yo Auntie, what you doing?” the young man asked, swaggering up.
“We thought you could use a ride home.” Adele said brightly.
Alfonso nervously eyed Lucia. He glanced back over his shoulder. “I’m-a hanging with my homies, yo. How come you ridin’ with the professor?” He studiously avoided eye contact with Lucia.
“We’re going to the Ocho,” Lucia told him. “Hop in. I’ll treat you to a milk shake. A big one. You look like you could use the calories.”
Alfonso considered. The Ocho, a well-established sweetshop known for its ice cream treats had been a magnet for generations of teens. It had become less fashionable as of late, and prices had risen steeply. The temptation got the better of him, and Alfonso ducked into the backseat.
Slipping down below window level, Alfonso demanded, “Drive, Auntie, drive. I don’t want my boys to see me.”
Adele pulled away. Lucia turned around and said, “I know what you mean. Your auntie and I have to be concerned with our reputations too.” Alfonso sulked, feeling like he had just been dissed.
Pulling up in front of the Ocho, Lucia told Adele to expect her call when they were ready to be picked up. She wanted to talk with Alfonso alone.
Alfonso preceded her into the shop to be met by Mr. Washington behind the counter saying, “No! You can’t come in here! Turn around and go back out.” Washington had a sign with a long list of no’s: no saggers, no colors, no gang signs . . . and many others. Lucia insisted that Alfonso was with her for ice cream and nothing else. Mr. Washington relented. He needed the business.
They took a table in the corner. Alfonso insisted on sitting with his back to the wall. He sipped hard on his straw, his eyes darting around the room suspiciously.
“How’s the shake?” Lucia asked.
“Good,” Alfonso replied, still not looking at her.
Lucia began, “You know, Alfonso, I am a philosopher.”
Startled, he asked, “Parole officer?” taken by surprise.
“No, philosopher. I use my thinking skills to analyze ways to live.
There have been many of us through the history of man. You and I can talk about ways to live, can we not, Alfonso?”
“You mean you talk, and I pretend to listen, like in Mr. Hopper’s Algebra 1.”
“How about I talk, and you tell me what you hear?”
“Sure,” Alfonso sneered. “You talk, and I call BS.”
“Let’s see, then. ‘I’m going to do anything I want, and I don’t care what anyone says.’ Agree, Alfonso?” Lucia looked at him for an answer.
“Yeah. That’s what Combo says.”
“All right. Tell me how this Combo does whatever he wants and doesn’t care. Give me an example.”
Alfonso thought, sipping pensively. “Okay. Okay. I got it. Combo never got his learner’s and never got his license, but like, he’s sixteen, you know, so he uses his mother’s car and drives. And he gets stopped by the Five-O, and they give him a ticket and impound his mom’s car, and she goes all crazy and stuff, but Combo has, like, this stash of cash and him and his mom go down to the lot and get her car, and he’s back behind the wheel in, like, two hours.”
“And what did he have to say for himself?”
“Yeah, he said having a piece of paper didn’t have nothing to do with driving. Combo said the cops are stupid because he knows how to drive, and they can’t stop him.”
“Well, Alfonso, he was neither thinking nor reasoning. He was simply rationalizing.”
“I don’t know what that means,” Alfonso answered sullenly.
“The difference is that in reasoning, we use the capacity to think and calculate, but when we rationalize, we use what we think are legitimate excuses for our defense. So, in light of that, Combo needs to rationalize his behavior, or he’ll have to admit that if he drives without a license, he is abusing his freedom and his liberty.”
Alfonso snorted rudely. Lucia took a calming breath and continued. “Liberty gives legal permission. The driver’s license gives legal permission to drive, a hunting license gives legal permission to hunt, and when one qualifies for a driving or hunting license, it means that one is a good citizen.”
Lucia sensed the young man’s attention drifting, but she was not about to slow down. She slapped the table top, and his instinctive reaction brought him back.
“Okay, here’s the deal: if you’re looking for the definition of freedom and the definition of liberty, they both appear to have similar meanings. Freedom is the state of not being imprisoned, enslaved, or otherwise constrained. Liberty is the right and power to act, believe, or express oneself in a manner of one’s own choosing. I am telling you that there is more to this. Liberty is society’s way of giving you permission to do the things you love, like driving. You’re given license to do this. Freedom, on the other hand, embodies your own personal liberty. You have an existential personal choice to think freely, choose freely, decide, love, hate freely, and so on. No one can take this kind of freedom away from you. I hope I’ve made this clear for you. You are . . . ah . . . free to say no, of course!”
Several words caught Alfonso’s attention: freedom, imprisoned, permission, liberty, personal choice. Still, her avalanche of words confused him. “But Combo said that he’s gonna drive till he gets caught again.”
With a sigh, Lucia responded, “Dear Alfonso, that attitude is precisely the one that goes against divine wisdom and freedom.” Lucia realized all this was a bit much for her young friend. She said gently, “Let’s step back and start with a new beginning. Let’s start with this premise — idea — laws are made to be obeyed. This is what keeps societies in order. If we didn’t have laws, everything would be in chaos. The ancient philosopher Socrates wrote about exactly this.”
“Socrates. He was . . . I’ll tell you more about him another time if you’re interested. Let’s stay on track. First, do you know you are following this as well as my college students?”
“You are.” Alfonso brightened. He sat up and no longer glanced about the room. This lady philosopher said he was smart, and nobody besides his mother said that very much.
Lucia observed the change in his physicality. She said, “I have a sneaking suspicion that once you learn a few basic ideas and concepts you will have a paradigm shift that will amaze you. Bear with me as I give you a quick lesson about a few very important concepts: law, prohibition, maturity, wisdom, conscience, human wisdom, and reason, to name a few. And along the way, you will learn about an amazing three-part construct in your soul that rules your life.”
“Souls are for church,” Alfonso noted.
“You only have a soul when you’re in church? I think your soul is you all the time. Do you want another milk shake?” Lucia asked. He shook his head. “Okay, I am going to say something that you won’t like. Just listen, and we’ll talk because I want to hear your ideas, Saint Thomas Aquinas, from the eleventh century, said this about the law, ‘a law is a command’ or an order that must to be followed. Laws are written to be obeyed and bring about social order. When a law is not obeyed, it is because those who lack maturity do not like anything that is an order or forbids them to do a certain thing. They feel that it prohibits them from satisfying their wants and needs. Maturity comes when it is understood why a law is to be obeyed.”
Alfonso sighed loudly. Lucia ignored that. “We must stop at a stop sign or a red light, is this not correct, Alfonso? You may get angry, curse and complain all you want about your forward progress being interrupted, but if someone runs lights and stop signs, there are going to be lots of accidents.”
“I get it.” Alfonso answered dourly.
“But,” the professor continued, “when we feel anger and we think that we have no choice but to obey the law, this is when a law becomes a prohibition rather than an obligation. Nobody likes to be told they can’t do something they feel like they want to do.” Alfonso stopped sulking and focused his attention. Lucia said, “A perfect example is the child who obeys his parents out of fear of the potential spanking. When fear becomes the only motive for obedience, the child is no longer truly responsible for his behavior. She is not mature enough yet to reason. But remember, lack of maturity can be found at any age.”
Alfonso blinked at the professor, taking in this fact and applying it to himself. It was dawning on Alfonso that the lady philosopher just might be on to something. “So, to continue this analogy, when a child is willful, and she chooses to do whatever she pleases, she justifies her behavior, saying, ‘I do what I want when I want, like your homeboy Combo.”
With this reasoning brought full circle, Alfonso grasped the ideas and felt self-satisfaction. He didn’t show it though. He did not want to reward Lucia for that.
“Do you remember how I said that there is a three-part construct within yourself that rules your life? Well, our Socrates believed that within us, in our soul, we have the three forms of government. I’m certain you have learned about the three ‘branches’ of government in school, right? What are they?”
“Legislative, executive, and judicial,” Alfonso stated flatly, surprised he remembered from seventh-grade civics.
“That’s right,” said Lucia. “Socrates talked about a whole Supreme Court in our soul. St. Thomas Aquinas called it the voice of one’s conscience, whose engine is the capacity to reason, the reason that is illuminated by wisdom. And when we go against our own capacity to reason, we are actually disobeying human laws and divine laws.”
Alfonso furrowed his brow. This is really complicated, he thought, and yet he felt it was really interesting at the same time.
“Okay then, Alfonso, I’m going to just add a little more. When two people break the law, each is using individual freedom. This is the reason that there is no collective sin. It is very important not to blame, regardless of what happened. When the difference between freedom and liberty is understood and put in practice accordingly, that is when one becomes mature. But if blame is put into practice, the meaning of acting in good will is not to be known. And that, my dear boy, is another lecture!
“Let’s take one more look at freedom. It is a gift, certainly, and the way Aristotle explains it, when put into practice, is a noble choice. Aristotle was Plato’s student for twenty years,” she said, dropping in this bit to hold his interest. “Then, as I was saying, when one puts into practice freedom, attached to good will, one may then enjoy spiritual tranquility.
“If this is not put into practice, we become blinded to the gift of freedom. We choose to fall into error and allow ourselves to be dragged by temptation. Before we know, we have left the capacity to reason behind. The temptation to break the law becomes the most absurd choice of conduct. Furthermore, eventually the transcendental consequences of this behavior such as stress, anxiety, dread, panic, and loneliness envelop us. We, as humans, feel the need to talk about choices we’ve made, but it is never easy to tell anyone about our wrong choices. Unfortunately, we may confide in someone with an even more corrupted soul. They may seem to give us a lift, assuring us that the things we’ve done were nothing compared to what they have done. It’s easy to get a false sense of security.
“You mean, like, Combo?”
“If you want to take that from our talk, I won’t stop you. So, Alfonso, be very careful with this attitude, and keep in mind that a moral wrong is wrong, regardless of its size.”
“I didn’t get that thing about trans . . . trans . . . trans . . . Umm . . .”
“Transcendental consequences,” Lucia coached.
“Yeah, transcendental consequences.” Alfonso could not believe he
was so caught up in this very heady discussion and was feeling very smart.
“Good question. The word transcendental is the concept of transcending, or climbing, going beyond. As when you finished elementary school, you were able to go further, beyond, to middle school. You were able to do this as a consequence of challenges transcended positively. You were able to climb the ladder to success! This is a very simplified example of a complex concept, but I hope you got the picture.”
Lucia looked him over, noticed his fatigue, and said, “Look, Alfonso, the bottom line is, behave well, and don’t give your poor mother unnecessary headaches.”
Alfonso nodded, sucked hard on his straw, and enjoyed the noisy sound of the last bit of milk shake. Lucia touched the screen of her cell phone to call Adele to come get them. “Remember what I told you, Alfonso,” she advised, “or you will have to sit through this lecture all over again.”
Alfonso smiled weakly.
“And no more robbing convenience stores.” Alfonso felt himself nearly faint.
“Adele!” Lucia said, “We’re ready to be picked up.”