Essay Non-Fiction posted August 19, 2016

This work has reached the exceptional level
from the Baltimore Catechism to the Art Institute

Free Will Hunting

by Mark Valentine

When I was seven years old, I came into possession of a free will. I knew that I would be getting one, because I had two older sisters who had gotten theirs several years earlier. Because they preceded me at St. Theodore’s grammar school, they were my advance scouts on the ways of Catholicism. By the time I got to second grade therefore, I had a rough understanding of the whole free will thing. Any remaining loose ends were cleared up by Question 145 in "The Baltimore Catechism", which explained that “free will is that gift from God by which we are enabled to choose between one thing and another, and to do good or evil in spite of reward or punishment”.

What this meant on a practical level was that I was now capable of sin, and therefore, needed to start going to confession. Apparently, unbeknownst to me, up until that time, my jejunity served as a Get-Out-Of-Sin-Free card. Why didn’t my sisters tell me that? That would have been useful information! Anyway, I went to confession a lot that first year. It wasn’t that I was a great sinner (though I held my own), it was more that I recognized that my soul was relatively clean and I wanted to keep it that way – sort of like how you don’t let anyone eat in your new car for the first few months after you get it. That obsession gradually fades until, after a while, you just chuck the chicken bones in the back seat while you’re driving. Both my soul and my Kia Sedona have seen their Blue Book value nosedive over the years.

But in those early years, I cherished my only-slightly-blemished soul, and the free will that made attending to its care necessary. I would soon learn (in Mr. O’Keefe’s history class) that not only did I have a free will, but I lived in a free country, perhaps the freest of all countries. I was told that I should be thankful for that because the Chinese didn’t have it so good. Chinese children had to tell Chairman Mao whenever their parents would do something forbidden by the "Little Red Book" so that Chairman Mao could throw them (the parents, not the kids) in prison. Apparently those same kids were also starving, or so we were told whenever we didn’t eat everything on our plates. Good! Let ‘em starve! Serves ‘em right for ratting out their parents.

Later still, I would learn that, not only did I live in the best country, but, from a freedom perspective at least, I was living at the best moment imaginable. Airplanes made it possible to travel across the ocean. The guys at the supermarket killed and cleaned your chickens for you. You didn’t need to spend all day chopping wood to heat your home.

It was a trend that was to continue on into adulthood. Automatic transmissions liberated my right hand and left foot from their bondage to gear shift and clutch. Microwave popcorn meant that I didn’t have to stand over the stove constantly moving the pan lest the popcorn should burn. And somewhere in my late twenties/early thirties came the Holy Grail of technological freedom – the VCR.

It was also around this time that I came to appreciate that, as a white male, I was the freest of the free. Vestiges of less enlightened times might still hinder women and minorities from securing the full blessings of liberty, but no such ghosts could haunt my experience. I was, and am, a member of the freest demographic, in the freest country, at the freest period in history.

So why don’t I feel free?

It seems that I decide almost nothing for myself. Virtually every minute of every day, I follow someone else’s agenda. I am chained (metaphorically at least) to a desk, a mortgage, college tuitions, and a ceaseless list of chores. What happened to free will? Was there some fine print in "The Baltimore Cathechism"’s footnotes that I failed to read?

Yeah, I know – it’s my own fault. I could have chosen not to get married, have a job, have kids, send those kids to college, etc. Mine is a voluntary servitude, exacerbated by the fact that I am a deferential introvert by nature. This is no epiphany for me. Though I occasionally have Walter Mitty-esque flights of fancy where I channel my inner Springsteen and dream of busting from these cages and driving fast down forbidden highways, at the end of the day, I go home and make dinner.

It’s gotten worse lately. The walls have been closing in from every direction. In addition to my job stealing my free time, insomnia has robbed me even of the freedom that sleep offers. The Chicago weather hasn’t helped. “Oppressive” seems to be the adjective of choice for the TV weather folks.  

As we have already established, I am a white male. As such, I have no right to get all Langston Hughes and speculate about how this whole caged-free-will thing might ultimately resolve itself, but still - I turned 7 in 1966, so we’re going on half a century of trying to keep a lid on this thing. I feel if I don’t fan the embers of freedom soon, they’ll die. It will be a darkness from which there is no return.

And so today at noon, I did it. I went out to lunch. And no, I didn’t just go to Subway and get my usual (a six inch meatball marinara on Italian herbs and cheese bread with Provolone cheese), and take it back to my office to eat. Not today. Today, I destroyed the routine and went to the Art Institute (voted best museum in the world by TripAdvisor). OK, I didn’t actually go into the Art Institute (because that would have cost money, and besides, I only had an hour) but I did put on my headphones and sit in the gardens outside the Art Institute to eat. I let the gardens, the sculptures, the fountains, and the music wash over me as I slowly ate my apple and drank my diet coke. Actually, until I wrote this line, the symbolism of eating an apple in a garden was lost on me.

There is an antidote to tedium, and it’s beauty. You have to pause and lift your eyes off the keyboard to see it (he says as he types an essay on his keyboard).

My lunchtime excursion was a quest for a small slice of beauty that might remind me that there is something more to life than getting it over with. Beauty. Once I had mastered "The Baltimore Catechism" and studied a more sophisticated version of theology, I would learn that beauty was one of the transcendentals: those qualities of existence that bypassed mediators and allowed us to directly experience, or at least glimpse, eternity.

The older I get, the more important beauty becomes. I live in a city where the daily number of shootings is routinely in double digits, and so, in those fleeting moments of free time, I garden, read, and listen to music, in an almost desperate attempt to find something beautiful to cling to. I’m sure I’ve written about this before. What was new today was the thought that beauty, too, might be taken away. The screen on my phone told me that the opening pianissimo notes of Aaron Copland’s "Appalachian Spring" were playing, but nothing came through my headphones. No need to adjust the dial - the problem is my hearing. The fault, as is increasingly the case with us Baby Boomers, is not in our devices, but in ourselves.

And what if the hearing loss becomes total. What then? No more music? The eyes aren’t that great either. What if it all goes? Perhaps there is still hope. An upside of being an introvert is that we’re pretty good at living inside our heads. If given the time and the solitude, I think I can find beauty. I can’t run fast anymore, but I can close my eyes and remember with the best of them. They can’t take that away from me.

But of course, one day, they will take even that away. What happens on that day?

Perhaps another level of beauty.



The photo is of one of the gardens outside the Art Institute in Chicago
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