Traffic Lights and Freedom

February 19, 2017

I teach at a Jesuit prep school. The Jesuits are big on reflection and the discernment process it can afford us. Ultimately, Jesuits challenge their students to be authentic, because theologically speaking, God is in love with our authentic selves...and wants us to be, too. The famous Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius involve a discernment process that invites us to know and love our authentic (flawed) selves...and in so doing, to know and love God. Okay. Enough theology. This post can proceed in a secular vein now, if you like.  

 

Because in keeping with this formative philosophy, one of the recurring thematic topics in my English course is freedom. We frequently return to the idea that freedom is about more than doing whatever we want, whenever we want to do it. One of the elements vital to true freedom is our ability to discern our authentic desires. That means knowing ourselves well enough, and being honest enough, to differentiate between fleeting, temporal cravings and the deeper, more substantive yearnings of our hearts. Did Macbeth, for example, really want to be the King? Maybe. Or maybe what he really desired was to serve and protect Scotland honorably--whether or not it involved being King. And maybe he'd become King eventually, anyway...without murdering anyone. After all, the witches' prophecy didn't prescribe murder. Macbeth's own fleeting ambition--urged on by his persuasive and troubled wife--did, right?

 

Well now. That's some fairly heady stuff for a bunch of tenth grade guys, even if they are honors students! There's nothing like a good analogy to help explain (and explore, together) an abstract concept. And so, when it comes to this theme, I often return to the Traffic Light Analogy. 

 

Consider the most annoying traffic light you encounter on a regular basis. It's tedious. It's annoying. It makes you stop; it makes you wait. It prevents you from doing what you want to do right now. Turn. Go. Get somewhere. And yet, ultimately, this traffic light is the very mechanism that facilitates your safe travel. It's the STOP that enables you to GO, ultimately, to your destination. And so it's a bit of a conundrum: "The red light lets me go." Of course, it's also so vital to consider that the traffic light is also what facilitates others' movement, too. I like to ask the guys: "What do we truly desire when traveling home?" Invariably, the answers come down to these: We want to 1. get home and 2. get home safely. Those are the authentic desires. The more fleeting desire--to satisfy my craving to go now, right at this second, is a passing one...and worth sacrificing or suppressing in the interest of the deeper, truer desire: to get home safely. I wonder how many other parallel analogies could apply in the same way. Probably quite a few.

 

Do we really want to chow down on junkfood to satisfy that craving, or do we more authentically desire to be healthy and nourished--and so suppress the craving and eat something healthy? Won't that, ultimately, lead to more freedom in the long run?

 

Do we really want to go to that party, or play that video game, or watch that movie, instead of getting to work on that pesky thesis assignment? Is that truly the exercise of freedom? Maybe. But ultimately, won't tackling the short-term obstacle mean more freedom later? And make us happier about ourselves?

 

The next time you're at a red light, tapping the steering wheel, annoyed, take a moment to thank that glowing obstacle in front of you. Because it's the very thing that lets you get where you're going. 

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