Freedom, Liberation, Frigidity, and Uptightness

Ronald Rolheiser
Reproduced with Permission

What does it mean to be free and liberated as opposed to being frigid and uptight? Not an easy question.

I’m not sure whether my own background helps or hinders me in trying to sort this out since I grew up in a rather strict, religious, immigrant, Roman Catholic family which, by today’s standards, would be judged to be pretty rigid, conservative, and uptight in terms of its moral values, particularly as these pertain to sex. Moreover I left home at seventeen to enter a seminary which not only re-enforced what I’d been taught at home but, in effect, incubated me for another seven or eight years by sheltering me from the big world. I was twenty-five years old before I first stepped out into the world unprotected, on my own.

But I wasn’t in a coma all that time, the world found me. I recall, for instance, an incident that took place about four years into my seminary training. I’d been assigned to a parish for the summer and one night went out for dinner with a high school friend who’d moved to that city from our rather isolated farming district. We came from virtually the same religious and moral backgrounds and he, like me, was twenty-one years old.

But our lives had by then taken radically different directions. He had gone to college, dropped out, taken a rather well-paying job, rented a condo, bought a car, stopped going to church, slept with a number of different women, and was at the time living with his girlfriend.

But his attitude was what most separated us. As we talked, he shared how good he felt about shedding many of the religious and moral taboos inherent in our upbringing. He felt a real triumph and liberation in moving away from his religious and moral past. There was a sense of victory and a thinly disguised pity for the poor folks back home (me included) who still bought the old values. He talked about how he no longer feared life, but felt free. And, indeed, his life did look pretty good just then. He was young and full of life. I went home that night to my single-bed considerably more restless than usual, still set in my values and my chastity, but, like Adam and Eve after eating the apple, with my eyes opened.

I bring this up because what this young man represents is, in essence, the last 40 years of our culture. We have just gone through 40 years of the most radical moral, social, and religious deconstruction and re-orientation that perhaps have ever been witnessed in history. We have liberalized, broken taboos, and pushed the moral, religious, psychological, and emotional envelope to the point where it is becoming increasingly difficult even to recognize the old inhibitions, taboos, and fears of our past. Within one generation, most people have stopped going to church, have cut the moral link between sex and marriage, and have gone from Bonanza to Sex and the City.

My friend and most of the liberal media would say this is progress, a freeing up from old inhibitions, superstitions, and frigidity. But are we happier? Freer? More liberated?

Again, not a simple question: There’s a lot to be said for the deconstruction. Among other things, the liberals are right in suggesting that we are almost always too uptight, too afraid, too inhibited, and too superstitious. But they’re wrong in the naive assumption that energy is friendly, that it can be dealt with cavalierly, and that because there is an innate timidity in the old moral and religious taboos there isn’t also a critical wisdom there as well.

Jesus broke a lot of the taboos of his time and the gospels narrate, again and again, how he went into the dark, taboo places of his time. But he didn’t go there to prove how free he was and how uptight the rest of us are. He went there to take God’s light into those places. I don’t think that’s exactly what my high school friend had in mind when he shed his religious and moral training, nor what Hollywood has in mind when it makes many of its films.

I’m not sure how my friend feels today, now that he is well into mid- life. He’s been married, divorced, has had several affairs, has grown children whom he’s still close to, has done quite well professionally, is less sure about what’s right and wrong, but, in the end, is basically sincere and good-hearted. However he carries a certain sadness that comes from having had too many relationships fracture and go sour. It’s not always easy then to love yourself.

Albert Camus, I think, offers some good advice for my friend and our world, though I doubt many will accept it: There is, he says, a time when the breaking of taboos because we are free of moral fear seems a victory, but all too often this turns into a defeat.