The Freedom of Constraint

Church of the Holy Sepulchre via Travcoa

I traditionally have chafed under authority. Not that I’m a rebel or anything; I just dislike being forced to do things I don’t want to do, like most people I assume. There is nothing worse than having a plan for the day, or, having a plan to do nothing for the day, and say, having your dad tell you to mow the lawn. It is highly unpleasant.

Thus, most of us, especially us Americans, are inclined to pursue “freedom.” By freedom, we generally mean the ability to do whatever we want when we want.

I’ve been temporarily granted this freedom for the month of January. The new contract I was supposed to start on has been delayed by government incompetence, and I haven’t worked since mid-December. I don’t need the money at the moment, so I have an abundance of worriless free time in which I can do whatever I want.

Have I explored the full potential of human flourishing in January 2016?

Nope. I have instead explored the full potential of the Netflix catalog.

***

Matthew Crawford (author of Shopcraft as Soulcraft) introduced the concept of the “jig” in his book, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in the Age of Distraction. A carpenter will create a jig, which is “a device or procedure that guides a repeated action by constraining the environment in such a way as to make the action go smoothly, the same each time, without his having to think about it.”

Instead of measuring every piece of wood each time and then cutting it, the carpenter will figure out exactly what he needs and create a jig so that he doesn’t have to think about the subsequent copies.

Crawford extrapolates this idea of a jig and links it to the idea of human agency, by suggesting perhaps that we achieve our full potential not when we can just do whatever we want, whenever we want, but rather, when we encounter smartly designed restrictions, whether physical, psychological, or cultural.

Western civilization over the past few centuries has dismantled many of the institutional and cultural jigs that once guided our behavior in favor of an individualistic philosophy that forces people to create their own jigs based on their own interpretation of what they need or want. This is one of the reasons the self-help genre is so successful. We realize that we often fail at doing the things we know are good for us and seek out resources that we think will help us.

While one can argue about the efficacy of these self-help books, I’m more concerned that we are ignoring an incredibly powerful source of jigs that have been developed over millennia: religion.

***

Us moderns like to make the case that organized religion is too constricting. We say that it forces us to abandon behaviors we don’t personally feel is wrong or harmful, and that it may force us to do things we are uncomfortable with. We protest that we can decide for ourselves what is right or wrong, that so long as we don’t prevent others from doing the same, we should be able to do whatever we want.

Indeed, religion (and other ancient philosophical systems) restricts our behavior and challenges our notion of “freedom,” to do whatever we want when we want. But these are jigs that, from what I’ve experience so far, are incredibly smart and most importantly, good for us.

The strict rules of Shabbat force us to remove all the distractions from what is important: friends, family, and God. Confession gives us the opportunity to examine the behaviors that offend the deepest part our souls. Praying five times per day reminds us that perhaps that the profane activities of our day-to-day are not what our hearts desire, that they desire the sacred above all else. Meditation helps us see things as they are, not as our minds make them appear to be. The study of scripture engages our mind in deep intellectual discourse, teaching us to ask questions that are relevant to living a good and meaningful life.

Many of my secular friends like to dismiss an entire religion by pointing out a single issue they disagree with. “I think it’s dumb that the Catholic Church doesn’t allow birth control.” On the surface, it seems like a reasonable objection. But usually these same people haven’t dug in to the deeper reason why the Catholic Church takes this position. The Church doesn’t permit birth control because if you cut off the possibility of creating life, you are using another person (your romantic partner) solely for your pleasure, which is selfish.

Even if you did not see anything wrong with two people mutually using each other for pleasure, you are still forced to ask yourself how you think about pleasure and under what circumstances it’s okay for you to use something to that end. You’ll ask yourself whether or not you treat people with the dignity they deserve as fellow human beings, and how you might be using them in other ways for your own selfish ends.

The moral reasoning that would lead you to reject this “jig” would be quite sophisticated and shed light on your sense of morality. And keep in mind, this benefit comes simply from engaging with the jig and rejecting it, not even following it.

Crawford runs a motorcycle repair shop and as part of the work he, naturally, must present the bill to his customers. He makes the case that this isn’t a simple procedure, but rather, it is an essentially human and moral act.

Here, in a microeconomic exchange, lies the kernel of ethics altogether, perhaps. In presenting the labor bill, I am owning my actions. I am standing behind them retrospectively. And this requires making my actions intelligible to the customer. The Hegelian suggestion seems true to me— namely, that it is in the confrontation between the self and the world beyond one’s head that one acquires a sharpened picture of each, under the sign of responsibility.

This engagement with the “world beyond one’s head” is exactly the kind of engagement that religion is designed to facilitate. It will force you to confront things like your own broken nature, the existence of suffering in the world, the meaning of the good, and the obligation of individuals to a community. None of this is strictly in your head, rather, it’s a cultivated interaction between your inner world and the outer one. Detachment is not permitted.

***
Instead of setting the goal of achieving maximum freedom, maybe we should use the freedom we do have to voluntarily engage with ancient traditions and ideas that challenge our very notion of freedom. It will teach us to access things the modern world no longer teaches us.

I can’t remember where I read this quote, but it says something to the effect of “People come here [the monastery] to find out why they came.”

This is the same pull that compels people to quit their boring jobs and travel the world. We think we are seeking “freedom” from the profane and think we will find it in exotic locales. But we eventually learn that it wasn’t freedom we were seeking at all. We were seeking something deeper, more profound, more sacred, but we couldn’t express it.

The awareness of grandeur and the sublime is all but gone from the modern mind. Our systems of education stress the importance of enabling the student to exploit the power aspect of reality. To some degree, they try to develop his ability to appreciate beauty. But there is no education for the sublime. We teach the children how to measure, how to weigh. We fail to teach them how to revere, how to sense wonder and awe. The sense for the sublime, the sign of the inward greatness of the human soul and something which is potentially given to all men, is now a rare gift. Yet without it, the world becomes flat and the soul a vacuum.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism

To learn the language of religion, we must also learn to submit to their jigs, to the rules they have set up for their followers in order that they may cultivate the ability to experience the sublime, to experience God.

These jigs seem oppressive at first, but over time, we’ll see the benefits. So perhaps we should set our goals not on attaining the freedom of the vacationer, but on the freedom of the carpenter.

  • Kevin

    First off, I can’t believe I missed Crawford’s new(er) book. I loved Shop Class and The World Beyond… sounds great too. Thanks for writing about it! It’s going on my reading list now.

    Second, as a perfectionist, I feel the need to “optimize” my choices – sometimes paralyzed by something as simple as choosing what to watch on Netflix – and end up watching/doing nothing. I totally identify with this article. I love the concept of a “jig” for real life. For those times when I am upset, bored, or frustrated or just find myself with a few free minutes I am starting to use “If, Then” rules (a type of constraint) to remove the desire to optimize and just use the time productively in some way. For example – If I’m upset/frustrated with our new puppy making a mess, Then I take him for a quick walk or out back to play ball. Or If I find myself laying in bed before my alarm goes off, full of worry, Then I drill down on that worry – asking myself Why and then What I can do about it when I get up and moving. It’s not perfect, but it helps.

    • I think you’ve discovered some great jigs that fit into your daily routine. Have you had to create your own jigs by scratch? Or have you borrowed them from elsewhere?

      • Kevin

        I’m sure I read about the ideas somewhere but I can’t pinpoint a specific reference. It’s more about recognizing times I get upset or frustrated, realizing what caused it, and figuring out a way to quickly get my mind focused on something else. The lying in bed worrying one is loosely based on a ZenHabits post I read semi-recently.

  • Ariana Pintor

    Amazing article. You completely put into words what I think, and the reason why in search for the spiritual in my life, I ended up going back to my religious roots. I will definitely share this 🙂

    • Thanks for the kind words. How did you end up going back to your religious roots?

      • Ariana Pintor

        Hi Dale! I was raised in a catholic family and went to a catholic school. But I received a mostly secular education, and never went to church except on special events ( wedding, funeral… ). Once I got to college I did my own thing, considered myself an agnostic mostly… I had bouts of anxiety and I read a lot of new age stuff about that, did mindfulness therapy and the sort but I ended up always having recurring episodes. Last time I had one a friend of mine lent me a Christian book by joyce Meyer… I understood that basically, I missed God in my practical life. Up until then, God was like an abstract concept to me, but then I realized that God is present if you seek Him. I started reading the bible and going to church. If all goes well, I will receive my baptism and confirmation this year! Love your blog. Keep searching for what means the most to you… I would say… Keep searching for God and you will find Him. God bless! 🙂