Reflections on turning 70: Freedom from the past
Editor’s note: This is Part 1 of a five-part series and focuses on “Freedom from the Past.” Part 2, on Friday, considers “Freedom from the Future.”
At the tender age of 17 I received an appointment to the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Less than a week after graduating from high school I arrived at the intimidating citadel, joining my classmates as we unceremoniously had our heads shaved, received our uniforms, vaccinations, and our assignments to our squadrons and dorm rooms. Most of the upperclassmen were away at summer flight school and vacations, a small crew assigned to our indoctrination and boot camp training.
To say that the orientation summer and the first year of school/training was an ordeal is a huge understatement, perhaps only fully appreciated by others who have endured it. My situation was rather unique in that my inability or unwillingness to accept the indoctrination marked me as the squadron “shit-screen.” Whereas my classmates only experienced 7 days of “hell week,” I endured several months of personal inspections and motivational runs. Needless to say, near the end of this first year I found myself standing before the commandant, invited to explain why I should not be expelled, ranked as I was dead last out of 1205 classmates (we began with 1440, so already almost 200 had quit).
From my experience of this ordeal I received a great gift. This was my first taste of true freedom. I had little idea of what I wanted in life, but I had a very clear knowing of what I did not want.
Reflecting back now from the vantage point of 70 years, this first major turning point in my life was significant. It was my first direct association between “failure” and freedom. Had I succeeded in my indoctrination into the way of a military warrior and leader (most academy graduates rapidly rise through the ranks), my life would have been defined by this career. Now that I had “lost” this prestigious and secure path of life, I was free to find another way to live my life.
I have discovered that the purpose of life is to become “whole, happy and free.” The illusion that our conditioning in the modern world offers us is that security, for example, is more valuable than freedom. In addition, we are led to believe that happiness results from conforming to certain norms related to career, material wealth, and family/relationship bonds. At least this was the “American dream” embraced when I was growing up in the 1950’s and 1960s.
Today, young people are seeing this dream disappear. The key, however, is to witness how evolution, personally and later collectively, depends of the disillusion of “old forms” like cultural norms.
Freedom from the past is what allows something totally new to arise. For those stuck in nostalgia for the past, all too common for many in their elder years, it is very unlikely that they could ever enjoy the joy of being “whole, happy and free.” We are currently living in a time of transformation. To those clinging to the illusion of security, for example, as the foundation of contentment, current changes are likely to appear terrifying. For those of us who have gone through one or several devastations, each one a death and rebirth, facing a time of transformation is nothing new.
I can remember so clearly after leaving my experience at the Academy, with some time for healing and integration, realizing that nothing could ever be so difficult for the rest of my life. Quite an awareness at the age of 18! Little did I know what further devastations awaited me in the future. The whole point, as I mentioned earlier, is to bring our past into the embrace of acceptance and even appreciation. This is the process of forgiveness, which itself has several steps that I will outline in the following essays.
Louis Bourgeois lives outside of Cuenca with his wife and young daughter. He teaches courses in Conscious Living and Conscious Dying. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org