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To Be a Free Man

I wrote this about a week ago, long before the Waldo Canyon Fire appeared out of nowhere, and kicked it up to the cloud with a scheduled post date of June 29. I’ll modify what I say here to this extent: The really and truly best birthday present of all this year was simply to come home and find my house still standing. I didn’t get to loll in a chair under a tree at Lake McConaughy as planned. Life’s just like that sometimes. We’re not out of the woods quite yet, but at least the woods aren’t burning where I live. More on this as it unfolds.

Sixty today. In answer to the quintessential American question, What do you want for your birthday? I have a fairly simple answer: to be a free man.

That bears some explanation. I’m not looking for freedom from responsibility. I’m a man who keeps promises. Neither am I looking for someplace to swing my arms around irrespective of local noses. That’s an ego thing, made difficult by the fact that most people don’t always know where their noses are.  No, what I want is a higher and much tougher thing: to be sure that the view of the world that I hold is mine, and not handed down from someone else.

That kind of freedom, like keeping in shape, requires regular exercise and attention to detail. Five years ago I described some of the great lessons of middle age, which mostly cook down to Life is messy–and messy is good. Since then, a great deal of my research has been devoted to the problem of freedom of thought, and freedom’s great enemy, tribalism. I’ve watched in dismay as people I’ve known sometimes for decades have sold their souls for a nickel to various tribes, becoming tribal footsoldiers who reflexively hurl hatred and abuse at anyone and anything that dares disagree with their tribal owners.

The thing that really makes me shudder is that it appears to be primal behavior, bubbling up from our deeper and more apelike minds with little conscious intent. Much research suggests that we evolved within a sort of Big Man social model in which a few alpha men at the top (yes, almost always men) and their cronies enjoy power, resources, and sexual opportunity handed up from those beneath them in the hierarchy. At the bottom are the expendable footsoldiers who fling pointless insults at the other tribes while never realizing that the poo-flinging is a distraction designed to hide the fact that the game is played at their expense.

This might be the subject of a couple of very interesting entries, if I could work up the courage to write them. If I did, I’m sure I’d get plenty of abuse myself. Pressure to conform to received opinion is intense, and the social networking revolution appears to have been designed specifically to facilitate the enforcement of tribal dogma. Most of the bumper-sticker entries I see on Facebook are precisely this: Like and share–or you’re not really a loyal party member, eh?

No thanks. I’m a contrarian, which means that I question all wisdom that somebody attempts to shove in my face, and the harder they shove, the harder I question. I do have opinions, which I refine constantly and change when it’s clear that they need changing. I talk about some of them here, when I can make an interesting point. But I am training myself to offer the courtesy of not attempting to convert others to my views, in the hope that the courtesy will be returned. For example, I have a religion. If you want to know more about Old Catholicism (and the insanely optimistic little corner of it that I inhabit) I’ll be happy to tell you. I will not attempt to convert you, and I promise to respect whatever religion (or none) that you hold. As for the rest, I’m digging around just like everyone else. Sometimes I turn up a useful insight. When I do, you’re likely to see it here. Most of the time I’m just digging, because digging is where insights come from. Alas, there’s always more dirt than insight, and this is not a new problem, nor one unique to me. Don’t fling the dirt when you should be offering others the insights.

As for turning 60, well, heh. It’s a good round number, and easy to remember. As I’ve said over and over again, I already have damned near everything a man might want: a spouse who is intelligent, interesting, loyal, and drop-dead gorgeous to boot; a house and a chair and a good bright reading lamp; friends who challenge and surprise; dogs and tools and tube sockets in abundance, and a front-row seat at the greatest show human history has ever put on offer. The challenge now is to keep what I already have, including the discipline of being my own man without minimizing the right of others to be theirs.

I have it. I intend to keep it. This is a happy birthday indeed.


  1. Alex says:

    Happy birthday Jeff. It’s posts like this that keep me reading – may they long continue.

  2. Eric Brombaugh says:

    I like your definition of freedom as it puts more responsibility on the individual – you guard your own by exercising your brain. Unfortunately the skills needed for this exercise of freedom are often challenged, for example:

    It seems that some would rather teach the next generation to be sheep than citizens.

  3. Tom R. says:

    Jeff, may you have many happy returns of the anniversary of your nativity!

    That is a long winded way my Father used to wish everyone a happy birthday and I intend to continue that tradition.

    I like your take on Freedom and that to keep ANY freedom we need to question ALL dogma. Unfortunately, it seems to be a art that fewer and fewer people are practicing and people are avoiding thinking for themselves since it is “too hard.”

    I am also happy to hear that your home is safe for now and may it continue to be so. I do hope that Mother Nature will soon be kind to all of those in your area and provide rain, no wind and cooler temperatures.

  4. Bruce C. Baker says:

    Happy birthday, old-timer! 😀

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