The Ghost in the Valley

As recorded by J.D. Bentley January 25th, 2018
The Ghost in the Valley

Freedom is taken to mean having the ability to choose anything according to your own will, regardless of whether or not what you are choosing is good or bad. Freedom also requires the ability to choose something else, to go back on your choice, at any time.

Freedom is the right to avoid committing to anything in particular, anything objective, anything permanent.

Such says the culture in which we live, but thirty years of experience has shown me that’s a lie. I’d often read my heroes writing that freedom—real freedom—is having the ability to choose what is right and what is good. When I first read that, I was willing to believe it on account of who wrote it, but it seemed to me nonsensical, or totalitarian like that line from Orwell’s 1984Freedom is Slavery.

But if you believe in objective truth, then that’s actually the case. Not in a doublespeak sense, but because everything is slavery. Life is slavery. We’re born bound up in certain expectations, responsibilities, networks, and limitations. Something will be our master. We are merely given the choice of which master to serve. We can choose to serve good or we can choose to serve evil. And while we might think we can avoid choosing anything at all, we can’t.

Life chooses chaos and idols and death unless you tell it otherwise.

As ensouled beings made in the Divine Image, created by a Logos which ordered the universe and has some particular place in mind for each of us, the choice we have to make is whether we will take up our given role and accept our true nature and live the divine will, or if we will fight against it.

And fighting against it unleashes hell—a persistent chasing lust for meaning and purpose which can never be fulfilled because you continually look in all the wrong places. It celebrates and amplifies your incompleteness and fragility and eventually drags you into despair. The freedom to fight against the nature and order of things is a choice that leads to misery. So then, the only real freedom is to choose good, to choose right and moral and ordered.

Today we have a generation of listless, tired, purposeless young men—myself included and, as Saint Paul might say, the chief amongst them. I unknowingly absorbed this American ideal of freedom, of acquiring and demanding more so-called rights from others while neglecting duties and the hard work of a virtuous life.

If freedom is the ultimate American virtue—and, hell, it’s the only American "virtue" anymore, the only thing that half-assed ties us together at all—then I should never commit to anything and I should be a patriot.

And that’s what I did. And there came hell, and a wasted decade, and the emptiness of speeding nowhere and being nothing. Maybe a mind worthy of a mission, yet wasted on the excesses of our age.

Thus came chaos. Thus came despair.

You cannot advance if you do not commit. You cannot reach the peak if you refuse to pick a mountain. I refused, and I think many others did, too, because freedom was the only virtue left to choose, the only about which we were told. So to be virtuous meant committing to nothing.

But freedom, the American concept of freedom as it developed over the last fifty years, is not freedom. The West is sick from rights and craves responsibilities.

A generation of young men accepted freedom as they were taught it and ultimately found no goodness there because none exists. Real freedom is having the character and wisdom to anchor yourself to what is good and right and ordered.

The only way to excel is to limit yourself. Trying to keep options open doesn’t put a thousand different selves on a thousand different mountains and allow you to climb each. It puts a single flickering ghost in the valley who wanders endlessly and shifts in form. He is an amorphous mass of potential that will never be actualized, that will never take shape.

Life might best be thought of as a moving object to which we are tied. The object is ever moving. You can try to dig in your heels and slow it down, but you’ll be tugged to the ground to have your bones broken and your flesh burnt against the asphalt. Or you can sprint and keep balance and try to keep pace so that, while your legs are tired and your body is worn out, it can still make for a lovely run.

Your choice is between broken legs and misery, or tired legs and a job well done. Your choice is not, and will never be, whether or not to be tied to the object.

Suffering is the nature of things. The only freedom is choosing to suffer well and to work to reduce the suffering of others. Any other choice is not freedom, but sin and vice and death.

That is to say, I believe I was born in a time when it is all too easy to make the goal of life to avoid suffering, and to do so by refusing to commit. To commit to work, to commit to people, to commit to institutions, to commit to history, to commit to reality. Committing is sacrifice because it is not only saying yes to one thing, but saying no to all other possible things.

But in committing, that flickering ghost in the valley starts to resemble a man as he finally chooses a path from which to start his ascent. Maybe even a man who’s worth a damn eventually.

I say this to myself before anyone else: commit, sacrifice, suffer.

Do not worship the ghost in the valley. He’s taken by chaos and amounts to nothing.