A very long time ago when I was a grad student, the chair of our department was a man I much admired, not so much for his scholarly achievements as for himself. English Departments, at least back in those days, were full of crazy people. I was told by more than one faculty member that the reason Dr. Grove was made Chair was simply that he was unflappable. His serenity might have been the consequence of being the father of eight. I don’t know. I just know that whenever I had a serious question, he would give me a direct serious answer, without elaboration, amplification, or any sort of posturing or pontificating.
So one day when I was pondering (a lifelong habit, intensified in grad school), I asked him: What is freedom? He answered: It’s what you give up.
Boom. There it was. And there ended my existential angst.
I’ve never forgotten it. In one form or another, it has answered many questions I’ve asked about matters both great and small in all the years since that day. How many times, in the throes of agonizing decisions, has that single brief answer returned to me. I don’t want to do X, and I have the freedom to not do X. But I do X because I give up that freedom. Maybe I should be more specific: There’s a pint of Haagen Daz butter pecan in the freezer, and I am free to eat it. Or, I want to see him. He’s married. I have the freedom to keep seeing him. It’s what you give up. The peculiar thing about giving it up is that it always comes back to you, so each time you decide to give it up, it returns.
This happened almost ten years before I became a Christian. (But truth is like that. It’s recognizable by everybody who has ears to hear. That’s why there is art.) Ultimately, on a summer day in New Orleans in 1984, I gave it up for good. I became a Christian.
Since then, I’ve heard, read, a good deal of talk about “free will”, but that’s a phantasm. We have only one real freedom, and that is the freedom to bring our will into submission to His. Nothing else works—nothing.
The smiling little man who always looked like a happy chipmunk made one short statement in 1978, and then probably forgot about it. He couldn’t know it would change a life for all eternity.