1 The Unique Character of Human Existence

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1 1 1 The Unique Character of Human Existence Each of us is confronted with the challenge of being human, the challenge of becoming a person. It is important to emphasize this word challenge, because it underlines the fact that a truly human existence is not something which is given to us without making demands upon us, and a truly human life does not come into existence automatically, or by being lived passively. A truly human existence is an achievement, and it is one which is worthy of our best efforts. No more demanding, intriguing, and fascinating task could be imagined. For each of us, a truly human existence is something not yet achieved, something for which we are searching. We are summoned, called to real existence, and this is a call to advance beyond that partial achievement of personhood which characterizes our lives at any given moment. 1 Of course, when we speak of the task of becoming a person, this does not mean that we start out life as non-persons. But the phrase does point to the fact that all through our lives, and not only at the beginning, we are only partially in possession of our personhood and our identity; and it points to the fact that full personhood and identity always lie before us. The so-called identity crisis is not merely an odd neurotic symptom, reserved to those with enough time and money to be able to afford such luxuries. It is an essential component of our human nature, and an ineluctable part of the human condition. Another way of appreciating the human challenge is to point out that a person is one who has a peculiar relationship to the future. The future is the «place» where we will have achieved real personhood, true identity, or will have lost it, and it is for this reason that we speak of a person as one who is open to the future. But it is important to emphasize the word «achieve»; the future is not simply the place where important things will happen to us; our future is precisely that which we are bringing about in our decisions now. The human mystery consists in the fact that the future (at least everything really important about the future) is in our own hands. 2 Our Decisions and Ourselves 1 This reflection is an interesting way of raising the question of God, for a very simple reason: the call to become persons does not come to us from a mere object or situation; like every such call, it comes to us not just from a place but ultimately from a person - a transcendent person. The fact that we experience ourselves as responding to a call indicates that God is part of the definition of the human being. We are real persons in so far as we stand in the presence of the real God, and reflection on this is far more significant for the question of God than are the socalled «proofs» for the existence of God.

2 Dwyer, The Nature of Human Freedom [1.3.1] 2 The task of becoming a person is one at which we will succeed or fail precisely in the choices or decisions which we make. There is nothing surprising about this, because it is in our decisions that we fashion our own future. To emphasize the importance of our decisions in this way does not mean that our feelings and our sensations, our heredity and our environment are unimportant. They are all very important, but they are important because of what we decide to do about them, because of the decisions we make. Like most of the things in our lives, we have not chosen our heredity, and our environment is usually beyond our control. They are simply «there,» either imposed on us or simply given in the situation in which we find ourselves, and although they confront us with decisions of many kinds, we usually do not have the option of accepting or rejecting them. What we can decide is whether to let ourselves be determined by these factors, or to take responsibility and be self-determining, 2 despite the constraints imposed by feeling, sensation, heredity, and environment. 2.1 What It Is That We Really Decide These decisions which we make are not simply things that we do. We cannot distance ourselves from them because they are a part of us, they are our very selves in action. Furthermore, although it is true that our decisions reveal who we are, they are more deeply a part of us than that would seem to imply. In our decisions we create ourselves; it is in these decisions that we move toward our true selves or lose our way. There is one implication of this which is of overwhelming importance: our decisions are, at their deepest level, not merely decisions about how to act; they are decisions about how to be and who to be. 3 Freedom This aspect of our decision-making (the fact that we are at stake in our decisions) is at the very heart of our human mystery. Our being, our reality, who and what we really are, is something which we decide on. It is we who create ourselves, for we are not pre-programmed like the other animals. Rather, our specifically human task is to write our own program. 3 To put it simply, we are free. 3.1 What Freedom Is Not 2 This is a key word for understanding freedom. The free wo/man does not simply react to a situation but determines him/herself in a situation. This is very much what Abraham Maslow meant by the self-actuating or self-actualizing personality. 3 This is not, of course, to deny that in the physical and biological realms we are programmed by physical laws and genetic codes. But real though they are (sometimes in frustrating and painful ways) these «sub-programs» or subroutines do not determine our existence; they simply provide the raw material which we are called on to organize and integrate into a truly human program.

3 Dwyer, The Nature of Human Freedom [1.3.1] 3 Freedom is not the absence of limiting and constraining factors in our lives; freedom is the ability and the power to make use of them. The very factors which we think of as limiting freedom are nothing other than the raw material which we are to use in becoming free. What freedom is not is also clear from the old debate between defenders of free will and their opponents. This debate has been going on for a long time, and usually the participants have agreed on only one thing: a very poor definition of freedom. Both define freedom as the power to do what we want at any given moment. Armed with this definition, determinists, as the opponents of free will are often called, argue that everything in life is fixed and determined by physical and biological laws, by neuron patterns and by psychological conditioning. The result is that, at any particular moment of life, one course of action will appear preferable to all others, and we will choose it. No determinist will deny that we are, at any given moment, confronted with different possibilities, and that they direct contrasting appeals to us: loafing in the sun can be pleasurable, but hard study now may well offer the reward of a more fulfilling and satisfying life later on. But the determinist asserts that it is the mere fact of these competing possibilities which tricks us into believing that we are free. Using the same defective definition of freedom, defenders of free will often argue (from «experience,» as they say) that we are obviously aware of not being forced or coerced in our choices. In the face of such weighty platitudes, determinists seem to have the better case, when they assert that this feeling or experience of not being coerced is nothing more than an illusion. But the arguments of both sides are based on a deep misunderstanding of what human freedom really is. 3.2 True Freedom We are free, not because of the absence of constraints in our lives, but because of what we can do and actually do about these very constraints. We are free, not because we can act in an arbitrary way, and not because we can do «anything we please,» no matter how stupid or destructive it is. If this were the case, freedom would hardly be a value. We are free because we can hearken to the summons and the call to become real persons, and because we have the power to respond to that call. We are free because we have the power to create ourselves. We are free because we can create authentic selves out of the given raw material, which is very often not of our own choosing. Paradoxically, we are free because we have the power to act as we ought and to do what we should. 4 4 This point is essential for solving the apparent contradiction between God's omnipotence and human freedom. The usual definitions of both place them on a collision course, as though our freedom could be affirmed only by accepting some limits on divine power, or as though God's power could be affirmed only by accepting limits on human freedom. But if both are defined with care, it turns out that far from competing with divine power, human freedom is the revelation of that power. God is God because he creates free persons, not puppets, and it is in their self-creative acts that his power is manifest.

4 Dwyer, The Nature of Human Freedom [1.3.1] Freedom and the Constraints of Life If freedom is defined as the absence of constraining and limiting factors in our lives, then it is a simple task to prove that we are never free. From birth to death, we are, at every moment, limited and conditioned by a very large number of factors. We can often do little or nothing about their existence or their power to touch us, often in very disturbing ways. But the precise point is that freedom should not be defined as the absence of such limiting factors. We are free because, although the more superficial levels of our existence are determined in ways over which we have little or no control, we can refuse to remain on this superficial level, and we can refuse to let ourselves be defined by mere objects or things. It is true that our environment determines a part of us. But we are free because we can refuse to identify our persons and ourselves with that part of us. There is another way of making this very important point. We are more aware today than at any time in history of the many constraints which limit us, ranging from the popular cliché of «oppressive social structures,» down to the various neuroses and psychoses which are germinally present even in the healthiest human psyche. However, these constraints do not compete with our free decisions (as though we could either assert that we are free or admit the existence of these constraining factors in our lives). Rather, they confront us with a different and much deeper question: what will we do about these constraints? The factors in life over which we have little or no control are the raw material out of which we are called to create ourselves. We are called to create persons in the concrete, not the abstract. There are certain forms of mental illness which simply paralyze the decisionmaking power (and in such cases we can say that the person no longer manifests 5 a distinctly human response to life). But aside from these, we do have the power to determine the kind of person we want to be, within the objective and subjective limits imposed by the situation. This is an extremely important point; we are free not because we can determine at will the character of our concrete situation and the possibilities which are inherent in it. We are free because, given the concrete situation and the possibilities inherent in it, we have the power to fashion a real self out of that raw material, and so to act in a truly human way. 4 Limitations of Freedom? 5 We have no way of being sure that such individuals are not free, any more than we do in cases of severe mental retardation. Personal life usually manifests itself in certain ways, but it cannot be identified with those manifestations.

5 Dwyer, The Nature of Human Freedom [1.3.1] 5 Sometimes moral theologians or writers in the field of ethics speak about factors which limit freedom - among them, fear, ignorance, immaturity, social conditioning, and many others. Their purpose is to show that, under certain circumstances we may be less than fully responsible for our actions. However, it would be better to see in these factors, not limitations of freedom, but rather a limiting or narrowing of the area in which we are called to work out our freedom. Fear, for example, may simply prevent certain options from being real possibilities, but we are still called to fashion a real self, the best one possible, out of the limited possibilities which remain. 6 6 Although at the moment the possibilities may be limited, the call to be self-determining and free demands that we take account of these limitations and do what is in our power to broaden these possibilities. Genuine freedom manifests itself in the planning which strives to be alert to all of the possibilities inherent in the situation.

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