Jehwoo Ahn | 16
“If this is what you truly want to do, then do it. We will no longer tell you what to do, what not to do; we are no longer responsible for your actions or their consequences. You’re free.” Despite my parents uttering the very words I thought would release me from the oppressive rule that they’ve established for so long in my life, there was no feeling of accomplishment or satisfaction. All those words merely echoed in my hollow, empty self. It would be a while until I realized that this newly achieved freedom came with its own set of shackles.
Freedom is perhaps the most valued fundamental right of humanity. It implies that each and every one of us has the power to make our own choices, to live our lives the way we want to live it, and to shape our destinies. So what is the antithesis of freedom? Many would describe it as imprisonment; the restriction of one’s free will, to be held down by something beyond the control of oneself. It’s intriguing that as soon as we define these liabilities as being undertaken by our own choice, they are no longer chains that bind us. Despite the fact that we value the ability to make our own choices, our society values features such as responsibility and relationships. We form bonds with other people through friendship or love, even though tying ourselves to other figures goes against our innate desire for freedom. We have rules that govern how we live our lives, and expectations of others that they will behave a certain way in public. In a society that simultaneously values freedom yet puts so many restrictions on our individual lives, how do we go about defining freedom, and in what context?
I thought that I had found freedom during my later years of high school. Coming from a family that valued success, high achievement, and making the best impression of oneself to others, I reacted in the typical manner of most high school teenagers in their rebellious years: revolution. We obviously lack the glory and honor of George Washington as he stood in his rowboat, boldly facing the darkness of the Delaware River as the beacon of resistance against the seemingly undefeatable British. But we like to imagine that we’re the Rosa Parks fighting against the oppressive rule of our parents, or the tank man in Tiananmen Square confronting any who stand in our way of freedom. Alas, reality is far from the grand idealizations of rebellion that we held in our minds in our younger years. We did the only thing we were capable of doing: go against what figures of authority told us to do. Alcohol, drugs, sex, skipping class, getting into fights; whereas so many around me would experiment with illicit substances or actions, I engaged in a far more mild practice: video games. It started out as playing just ten more minutes than I was allowed so I could play online with my friends. With my parents’ increasing frustration and restrictions on my gameplay, I would go out of my way to sneak online and lose myself in the online community where I felt like I could be myself. Half-days and holidays during the school year were the highlight of my otherwise ordinary weeks. Eventually, gaming behind my parents’ backs for even an hour or two wasn’t enough. I would set multiple alarms in the middle of the night while my parents were fast asleep, satisfied only when I heard the gentle whirring of the desktop and the all-too-familiar login screen before my eyes. I convinced myself that this was freedom: doing what I wanted, freeing myself from the shackles of my parents, and taking control of my life in my own hands. Yes, this was true freedom: having to look behind me whenever I thought I heard my parents’ footsteps behind me, having to delete my browsing history so my parents would never know that I was online, constantly sneaking upstairs to listen for my father’s consistent snoring which confirmed that my parents were asleep, and the paranoia and anxiety that I felt from the risk of discovery of my illicit activities. The eventual necessity to log in everyday, my creeping addiction and obsession with gaming and my online friends, the fact that I could not bear to stay away from the computer when I was at home…I justified my actions by telling myself that this was what I wanted, and that my parents did not, could not, and would not control my life ever again.
Too often we become bound by our own sense of freedom. By feeling the need to control our lives, the autonomy in which we can act according to our own desires, we end up chaining ourselves down. We become enslaved to the need to rebel, to act out against some authoritative power to establish our own identities. I was lying to myself in my high school years; though time and time again I tried to convince myself that fighting against my parents was all for the cause of my own freedom, I became a captive of my need for video games, the very medium that was supposed to release me from my parents’ expectations.
When I got to college, I thought that my freshman year at Bowdoin was supposed to be liberating. I was no longer trapped in my home under the watchful eyes of my parents. I was convinced that I would start a new life and change myself completely. The beginning of my liberation, as I would discover, came much farther down the road, during my senior year of college when I signed up for a fall retreat thinking that two days away from campus would temporarily free me from assignments and exams. Never had I expected it to free me from so much more.
Before I stepped into the van that would take me away to the retreat at Toah Nipi, I took a long look at the campus I was leaving behind and sent my own mental text message to God, or at the time who I defined as “some higher power”; that if they do truly exist, that all I asked for was some sign during the retreat that this was the right path for me. And God decided to do much more than just send a reply. When I look back, I feel that he responded to my plea for help even before I made it; he connected me to the Christian fellowship and helped me to leave my old self behind by taking that final step into the van that would take me away to a place that would transform me. He liberated me from my self-centered definition of freedom, and helped me redefine it in the context of serving Him. Freedom is not an intrinsic right. If we define freedom as the ability to make decisions for ourselves and do what we want, we are always left wanting more. This cycle entraps us within our personal search for freedom, and chains us to our unquenchable need to define who we are. Listening to the powerful stories and experiences of others in discovering life in light of their faith made me realize how blinded I was during my high school years. I truly felt that God was telling me these stories in reply to the pain and suffering, and most of all the loss that I felt through my hollow freedom that I had “won” during my high school years. The most memorable is a parable of a man with two sons: one day, the younger son tells his dad to give him his inheritance, after which he splurges all of it and returns home, planning to beg his father for forgiveness. The father hosts a party, after which the older son protests, saying that he gets nothing for being faithful, whereas his son gets a calf for running off and spending their father’s money. The father replies that everything he owns belongs to the elder son, but the important part is that the younger son has been lost, and is now found. What’s most poignant about this story is that as the younger son makes his walk of shame back home, his father is seen looking out into the distance, waiting. And when the father sees the distant figure, he immediately recognizes his son and rushes to prepare a party. This parable resonated with me; I was that son who was so caught up in living his own life and claiming his inheritance, but later realized that defining life through these superficial measures was meaningless. Only after all these years had I even begun to truly understand my parents’ perspective as they raised me, continuously pinning their dreams on the only son that they’ve ever had. I left that retreat hoping that my parents would be waiting in the distant horizon, waiting to welcome me back with open arms.
As I continued my journey through my newfound faith with God, I came to another realization; this story of loss and return doesn’t just apply to me and my parents, but to my relationship with God. I had neglected this relationship for so long in my life by centering my life on myself. But it was the moment when I decided to take a blind leap of faith, to let go of what I felt was necessary to define my own autonomy and existence, that I truly was able to understand real freedom. Living in His footsteps is how we feel the most free. For the majority of my life, despite fulfilling every definition of “freedom” by destroying my relationships with God and my parents, I was lost. The crushing lack of purpose and the hollow guilt that came from my actions were proof to me that I was enslaved by my own freedom. But it was through God’s Word and through the Scriptures that I was able to free myself from the invisible chains that I had restricted myself with. It was through God and my renewal of faith that I was able to make the hardest decision of all: to live not for myself, but for God. It was then that I was able to find liberation from the hell that I had unknowingly trapped myself in. The human definition of freedom exposes the need for redefining freedom through God; we think we know and own everything; thus, our “freedom” is conceived as the ability to do whatever we want, separate from the jurisdiction of others. Just being exposed to God’s Word allowed me to understand why my life was the way it was, as well as the solution to setting it right. By submitting to another figure, many would tell you that you are giving up your freedom, and that you are enslaving yourself. And it’s true to a certain extent; by offering your purpose and your will to God, you essentially blind yourself. I took that step in declaring my Christian faith; but while others around me perceive my dedication to my faith as blinding myself to the world around me, I discovered something so much more. My faith was what truly opened my eyes.
Jehwoo Ahn, Bowdoin Class of 2016. Biology. Simsbury CT.
God gifted Jeh with the ability to read scripture aloud with authority even before he understood it.