Chapter 19 Freedom: how it all begins

第十九章 自由的起點

19. Freedom: how it all begins

I remember a freshness and an excitement when I think back some sixty or so years. In this, I am sure that I am not unique: life with all its complications and frustrations begins much like a distant vessel on the horizon. It is initially just a small dot that slowly gets bolder and bolder, and finally looms fully into view. It is only then that you can make out its details: its huge size, its complicated structure, its blazing color, its sublime profile. In all of this, you sense a feeling of lightness, the embrace of optimism. You do not know why you feel this way, but you do. You are alive, though somewhat dull and awkward.

Now: what do you do with this life? This is the fundamental question that sticks with the thinking person until the end is presented. Its answer does not seem to reside in money, power or the things of the world; it appears to be a higher goal – almost unreachable. It is “to know the unknowable,” to paraphrase Averroes1 or “to achieve my meaning to life,” in the parlance of Dr. Frankl.2 I was just too young to properly articulate this question, though I felt that the query was there, nonetheless. I also suspected that to not adequately address this concern would fill my life with needless pain and suffering, the classic unrequited life. I wanted freedom, whatever that meant! I come from a large and boisterous family; there was just my sister and me for a very long time. Then, two brothers appeared in rather quick succession. They were like twins. My mother used to dress them in similar attire. As we all got older, I surreptitiously took on the mantle of sergeant major: I just couldn’t get the military fantasy out of my mind. At the time, no one questioned whether toy guns or “cowboys and Indians” were violent activities, the Second World War having been over for only ten years or so.

I remember exploring the environs around our home with my little army. It was, curiously, not far from a disused military base. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the Japanese conquest of Hong Kong and, subsequently Singapore,3 the British Empire and therefore Canada, immediately reacted -- some would say overreacted. Troops were marshaled and military bases were built. The Canadian government, in its wisdom, decided that our isolated piece of the world was subject to invasion.

To be fair, the Aleutian Islands4 were soon attacked and some were occupied. It is the province of historians to explain what the Japanese Empire was thinking. Tactical advances that look absurd today through the prism of time were terrifying in 1942.

There were just so many trees in our area that no one thought them of any value. To build the local defense infrastructure, they were felled and winched into a large pile and set on fire. What to our environmentally sensitive age seems ridiculous, an almost criminal waste was viewed, at the time, as expeditious. This created a labyrinthine world that would have welcomed Theseus and the Minotaur.5 My brothers and I probed and explored, and investigated some more. I now remark that leadership was an essential part of this game. With my little flashlight, I always led us back to safety. It is a quality all of us aspire to find or choose to follow.

Once my “group” finished our activity and trundled back home, I was initiated in the next major concept of my education: work. Work defined as an activity that produces a result. At an early age, I was introduced to my mother’s urban architectural project: this was the remaking of our backyard into a virtual paradise with a running brook and a pond filled with Koi. As I recall, this was a toil that went on for years and years producing negligible results -- but it kept us focused and busy, and maybe that was the point.

Into this construction, another brother was added some fourteen years younger than me. Sadly, far too young to join our army and I was also past my military phase. Everyone had an assigned task: my job was to sift the newly delivered topsoil and remove the sticks and large rocks. I spent hours shaking the device and removing the debris: an excellent introduction to laborious and tedious labor. The soil was then carefully spread on our back lawn to raise its level above the projected stream and pool.

From my adolescence, I “took away” two indelible facts. Firstly: we must somehow take control of our own life. The first person I must lead is myself. Unless I am a leader of me, I will always be a follower of other people’s expectations. Secondly: work as a concept, is just not pleasant. I must find a methodology in my daily tasks that makes my economic efforts acceptable, even agreeable. This would make work “good” and wholesome.

Unfortunately, on this second point, I was tremendously misdirected. Work can only be good for free human beings if it is accompanied by an obscene amount of money, as in the heyday of capitalism for the working man after the aforementioned war. Or, if it is goal oriented, you are a “wage slave” to acquire experience leading to expertise: think of the peasant who eventually buys his own land, like my grandfather. Standing on its own, work, with no plan, no vision, is lethal to the mind.6

How many smart, old industrial workers do you know who were bored with their jobs and suddenly got enlightened upon retirement? Extremely cruel, but truthful. Now this has nothing to do with the fact of being a working man. Industrial workers created our societies and gave their lives to building a family, and thus a community. You must keep your mind alert whatever you do. “Frankl observed that it may be psychologically damaging when a person’s search for meaning is blocked.”7

The aged who have a twinkle in their eyes and a joyous disposition have found their own Valhalla: their own meaning to life.

19. 自由的起點