Stoicism taught that you should only desire things within your control. To do this, you must first understand what is within your control and what is not within your control. You can’t control how others treat you, but you can control your reaction to them. You can’t control whether or not you get a promotion at work, but you can control the level of effort you put into your job.
Only when you desire what you can control and act accordingly, can you truly be free and tranquil.
The Jesuits call this state “spiritual freedom.”
Spiritual freedom is an interior freedom, a freedom of the mind and heart. People who are spiritually free know who they are – with all of their gifts and limitations – and are comfortable with who they are. They are able to discern God’s presence; find meaning in their lives, and make choices that flow from who they are, whatever the circumstance. – Father Kevin O’Brien SJ
What would it feel like to never have to put on a “show” for anyone else? To make decisions from a clear understanding of what you are and what you are not?
It would be wonderful.
So why isn’t everyone in a state of spiritual freedom?
Like the Stoics, the Jesuits recognized that we often become distracted and seduced by things in the outside world as well as our baser desires.
We have numerous preoccupations that get in the way of our hearing and responding to God’s call: fears, prejudices, greed, the need to control, perfectionism, jealousies, resentments, and excessive self-doubts. These tendencies bind us and hold us back from loving God, ourselves, and others as we ought to. They create chaos in our souls and lead us to make poor choices.
Lacking spiritual freedom, we become excessively attached to persons, places, material possessions, titles, occupations, honors, and the acclaim of others. These things are good in themselves when ordered and directed by the love of God. They become disordered attachments or disordered loves when they push God out of the center of our lives and become key to our identity. – Father James Martin SJ
Instead of focusing on the dichotomy of control, the Jesuits focus on the concept of moving farther or closer to God. Moving closer to God means accepting who you are, accepting things as they come, and directing your efforts to God-approved, fulfilling activities.
Moving away from God means focusing on negative emotions and excessively pursuing worldly goals.
I like the term “disordered love.” It implies something good that has become misplaced or put in the wrong environment.
I’ve fallen for “disordered loves.” The choices I’ve made since I left the Navy have mostly been from a place of insecurity, from confusion. The choices came not from spiritual freedom, but from spiritual emptiness.
Distractions and disordered loves may come in the form of inspiration. You read The Four Hour Work Week and are inspired by Tim Ferriss’ story of automating the parts of your life that cause you grief (your job, tedious tasks, etc.) and freeing yourself to pursue what it is you really want.
The reason this is so attractive is that Tim Ferriss correctly identifies the symptoms of spiritual poverty: feelings of boredom and restlessness, stress, the desire to escape the rat race, the desire for something “more.”
But he only proposes a half solution.
He writes about techniques to become more efficient and effective with your income generation, whether that is outsourcing parts of your day job or starting a “passive-income” business.
This lead many people, including myself, to think that the solution is to also build a business that would allow all the time in the world to do what they want.
This is misguided.
The goal of the Tim Ferriss lifestyle is admirable: freedom. Indeed, this whole post has been about attaining freedom.
But Tim Ferriss focuses on attaining financial and time freedom first.
The Jesuits say it is more important to focus on spiritual freedom.
The former is not a substitute for the latter. The pursuit of the former might even become a disordered love, as the pursuit of wealth (and the free time that is a result of wealth), is likely to lead to the desire for more and more wealth.
Why not focus on spiritual freedom first? Why don’t we develop the internal traits that allow us to be content regardless of our external circumstances?
I don’t regret trying to pursue a passive income business or traveling to find happiness, but part of me wishes I focused on the pursuit of spiritual freedom first. I get the sense I’d be much happier today if I put more energy towards attaining spiritual freedom, rather than pursuing an online business. *
The pursuit of financial and time freedom is not incompatible with spiritual freedom, but if you have limited time and energy, which should you pursue? In the hierarchy of values, which is more important?
I’m siding with the Jesuits on this one.
*Of course, this may be a case of sour grapes. I did not achieve the mythical $5k/month passive income business goal so I could be simply trying to justify my business failure.