June 15, 2014

Bondage and Freedom

There are more sides to bondage and freedom than we care to imagine, and it is often difficult to recognize when we are bound and when we are free.

There is a story in the Tanakh of a young man named Joseph. He was loved by his father more than his brothers, which they resented. He spoke freely and without tact, angering his brothers to the point that they sold him into slavery. As a slave, he became valued for his trustworthiness, but a false accusation saw him thrown into an Egyptian prison. In prison, he correctly foretold the fates of two servants of the Pharaoh’s courts, but the one who promised to remember him did not. Eventually, he was remembered, he helped the Pharaoh and became second power over all of Egypt, managing strategy in preparation for an approaching famine. When the famine came, people from the region came to Egypt to buy food—including his brothers. He hides his identity initially and tests their character, but eventually reveals himself, embraces his brothers, and is able to see his father and present his own sons to him before the father dies of old age.

This story contains more glimpses of bondage and freedom than may be recognized at first glance. First, there is the bondage of favoritism and sheltering which prevents one from a true comprehension of social transaction. The ability to discern and to respond are inhibited by the presence of a protective layer between the participant and the unknown.

We also witness the warping of judgement that can occur when in bondage, no matter how minimal. Joseph’s brothers, under the bondage of disadvantageous station, find bearing the license which Joseph is allowed insufferable. They recognize that killing him is wrong, but somehow determine selling him into slavery as acceptable. They also, beyond impulse, design a story for the father that can be considered nothing if not cruel.

The freedom of principle is rich in this story, though it is rarely discussed in these terms. Joseph finds himself in numerous situations, but the one constant that persists is his reputation and integrity. When one is confident in their being, external situations matter so much less to personal perceptions of bondage and freedom. Interestingly, it doesn’t really matter whether one is right or wrong, only that they are confident in their perspective and that this outlook serves their need. Consider this the next time you say “Ignorance is bliss.”

Least noted of all, in my humble opinion, is the strategic freedom Joseph has to choose his response to his brother’s arrival, the tremendous financial freedom he has to improve the fate of his family, and the freedom his heart has to address the present with integrity without dismissing the past. A person of his wealth, capacity and experience could have easily made things very difficult—and would have, by all opinions, been justified. So many of us would have certainly done the right thing, but not with the same perspective.

4 Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me.” When they had done so, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt!

5 And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.

6 For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping.

7 But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.[a]

8 “So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God. He made me father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household and ruler of all Egypt.

I’ve been thinking about this story a lot recently, and drawing analogy to personal experiences of the last few years. In late 2010, I wrote about the erosion of a protective financial barrier I’d long been accustomed to. That intentional shielding from once-known realities left me somewhat unprepared for the bumpy ride that was upon me and would persist.

Six months later found us uprooted and transplanted in California, still trying to live the ideal. Not everyone had the perspective of what I considered ideal; I reached out to those I felt I could trust and ended up being falsely accused. Unlike Joseph, however, I harbored this as betrayal. Perhaps it was because I hadn’t fully sorted out past grievances, but I turned inward, committed to solving my issues on my own; I had begun creating my own bondage.

The person who referred me left Twitter, leaving zero people who knew who I was or who had the ability to remember what I was capable of. Poor freelancing practices left our household severely owing to the government. But a conversation I had with someone gave me a mantra to cling to: “infinite patience yields immediate results.” I set my resolve to see these burdens through.

I watched as this wore me down and warped my perspective. Rather than thinking about what mattered to me, I focused on restitution and return on effort. I focused on the differences around me and the distances to what it was that I wanted. I didn’t discover, I didn’t explore, nor did I wonder; my heart turned to stone and my jaw was set in silent defiance. I chose a freedom from the things which would make me feel.

And so, in May, when I sold a few shares and used the proceeds to pay the last of tens of thousands of dollars owed, I lifted my head a free man for the first time in over three years. But it wasn’t until I ran into that post, written years ago, that I realized what I was actually free from—that bondage I’d placed upon myself. In an email correspondence I noted, “As [the ability to sell shares] drew closer, it seemed my misery was increasing, but I’ve realized it’s my heart—hoping that I can be me again. Who knows if I’ll ever fully be me again, but for once, tomorrow is open—and free.”

So I think about Joseph, his strategic and financial capacity, and his ability to present his ideal to those who he fully recognized as orchestrating his past experiences. That I could be as great, as benevolent; that I could truly return to a world of honesty, craftsmanship, good intent—and nothing else. That will determine whether I am truly bound or free.