Taking No For an Answer

Today’s Inward/Outward post, which was in my inbox this morning, was a quote by Parker Palmer that I think is right on target.  Parker writes:

One of our problems as Americans—at least, among my race and gender—is that we resist the very idea of limits, regarding limits of all sorts as temporary and regrettable impositions on our lives. Our national myth is about the endless defiance of limits: opening the western frontier, breaking the speed of sound, dropping people on the moon, discovering ‘cyberspace’ at the very moment when we have filled old-fashioned space with so much junk that we can barely move. We refuse to take no for an answer. Part of me treasures the hopefulness of this American legacy. But when I consistently refuse to take no for an answer, I miss the vital clues to my identity that arise when way closes—and I am more likely both to exceed my limits and to do harm to others in the process.

The secular theory underlying the mindset of which Parker speaks understands freedom exclusively as “freedom from,” that is, a freedom from interference to follow individual pursuits, whatever they may be. This is freedom as individual autonomy, with no objective ranking or judgments about individual preferences. Prior to his election as Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger characterized this understanding as a “dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.”

The Christian understanding of freedom, what is sometimes referred to as “authentic freedom,” is very different. In contrast with an understanding of freedom that admits of no judgments about individual preferences, authentic freedom is not unlimited; it is bounded by moral truth. Authentic freedom is the freedom to make choices that accord with truth. As Pope John Paul II observed, in Centesiumus Annus, that “freedom attains its full development only by accepting the truth.”

Authentic freedom understands that there are limits and that sometimes “no” may be the right answer.

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