December 7, 2008

A Friend's Lesson Regarding the Source of Freedom

I used to think freedom came from the Department of Motor Vehicles, a miraculous source of privilege we called a drivers license. It wasn’t until after I received mine that Dad explained the rules for using the 1967 Dodge Dart parked in our driveway. When he said I’d have to contribute to the car’s upkeep, I realized that a license hadn’t made me free at all. Freedom, I decided that day, was something else entirely: It was a full tank of gas! In this way my definition of freedom has adapted to new experiences and the accompanying lessons they've taught me.

Growing up in South Central Alaska, I had an Aleut friend named Robert Ivanoff. He had coarse black hair that fell across his laughing eyes and earth-colored face. Regardless of the weather he always wore the same clothes – faded blue jeans, tennis shoes, a tee-shirt with some innocuous (occasionally obscene) message and a cotton warm-up jacket. Once while hunting ptarmigan after an early morning snow I asked him if he was cold and he said with a mischievous grin, “You gotta be tough to live this far north.”

I never doubted Robert’s toughness. I figured it was bred into him. His ancestors chose to live in an unforgiving land governed by an inhospitable climate and he’d inherited their hardy genes. Because of his native status, he could hunt wild game with few limits or seasonal restrictions, which meant he often came to school late, looking as if he'd slept in the woods all night. Sometimes Robert didn't show up at all. To my mind he lived a Peter Pan existence in a Neverland full of adventure and I envied him.

However, in our junior year of high school Robert taught me a surprising lesson about freedom. The setting was health class where our teacher, Mr. Tinney, had asked us to present oral reports on alcohol. When it was Robert’s turn, he stood before the class like a battle-fatigued animal surrounded by wolves. Fidgeting, he began to speak.

“My Dad,” Robert said, “he drinks. Sometimes he drinks too much. He goes to a bar. He promises–only one drink, but he forgets. He doesn't stop. He acts like a crazy man and people laugh. Soon his money is gone. Then he and mom fight. They fight all the time. No good comes from drinking.”

Robert continued to stand there for what seemed like a millennium. His eyes moved cautiously from classmate to floor to teacher to floor again. His mouth twitched silently. I think he wanted to say more. He seemed desperate to say something, if only to add fluff to substance. Instead, he shrugged and walked slowly back to his seat.

There were none of the smart-aleck comments that usually followed presentations, only sidewise glances and questioning looks. Mr. Tinney could muster neither critique nor question. I suppose we all began to see Robert differently then.

In a moment the bell rang and we all left through the hushed voices and frozen space towards the door. In a way, I felt as though Robert had violated something sacrosanct. Speaking of such private family matters seemed a little like hanging dirty underwear up for flag day. Despite the embarrassment, something good came out of the experience. I understood more clearly the sorrow drinking caused. To me no amount of Sunday preaching could have illustrated the dangers of alcohol as effectively.

Later a thought exploded into my mind. Robert had made one notion clear: alcohol can enslave. But I wondered if he was trying to express the idea’s logical corollary. He might have said when we are untrue to any of our commitments–when we walk the path of least resistance, take rather than earn, avoid rather than contend–we become subject to a kind of bondage those acts create. Worse, we expose others (most often those dearest to us) to the side effects of our bondage. Caught up in the inertia of seeking easy ways out of life’s entanglements, we cheat ourselves out of lessons we could otherwise learn.

Robert could come and go with impunity, but that didn’t erase the parental discord in his family, the insinuating glances and the indigence in his life. Freedom, I’ve come to decide, isn’t a lifestyle devoid of complications. Neither is it living without restrictions. Governments can no more insure our freedom than guarantee we won’t be haunted by nightmares. Choosing not to drink is the only way to guarantee liberation from alcohol’s influence. Electing not to steal weans us from dependence. Ironically, it’s only through personal restraint based upon moral and ethical standards that we can truly be free.

Three decades have passed since I last talked to Robert, but I think of him often. I wonder where he is and what he’s doing. Being thousands of miles away, I do the only thing I can for him: I hope he’s happy. Then I offer up silent thanks for the remarkable lesson he taught me.

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