The Arts of Liberation

The Arts of Liberation

Getty/Jorm Sangsorn

Mark Nepo discusses liberal arts, opening hearts, and what liberation can look like.

When I was young, freedom seemed the distance I could travel without having to slow down inside. But now, after many sojourns behind the curtain of noise, after many glimpses of what holds us up, after many elusive sightings of God in the unthinking faces of animals and stones, freedom has given way to liberty, which seems now the depths to which I can go within without having to move at all. And there, I have learned that great thinking and feeling bring us to the secret of being, the way great music brings us to the secret of silence.

Though the way is hard, we each make the world anew by seeing it, loving it, and expressing it. Recently, I spoke in the philosophy department at Hope College in Holland, Michigan on the subject: What is Liberal Arts? In essence, I shared that after all these years, after the many ways experience has worn the excuses from my tongue, I remain steadfast in my belief in the arts of liberation. For me, underneath all attempts at education is the question: How do we live together in our time on Earth? And what does it mean to be alive? And what are the deeper skills—the ways of seeing, being, holding, knowing, feeling, and perceiving—that help us through the miraculous and dangerous corridor it is to live a life on Earth?

At dinner, afterward, one of the professors asked with pain and sincerity, “How can I open the minds and hearts of young people when, honestly, I’m unsure if they can go into all that is opened?” He paused a long time, then said, “I’m concerned about leading people into places that will undo them.”

But this is the crux of it, the wonder of it, the pain of it:To be alive, in every way, is both astonishing and full of peril. It can be abundant and collapsing. And nothing else matters but gathering the resources to make it through these paradoxical and poignant straits. We must be honest about this. Seeking what matters is an adventure that will inevitably undo us.

We talked further into the night through dinner and a bottle of red wine. At last, we stumbled into the deeper notions of faith: that when we are thrust so fully into life, our experience liberates unexpected resources that can help us negotiate the dark. So, though the prospect of pure being—of seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary—can take your breath away, it will show you Eternity. Though loving everything will make your heart feel like it might burst at the sight of rain, loving everything will cleanse you of all that is false. Though watching a mother dog lick her stillborn pup will make you cry out in silence, “I can’t take anymore!”—it will steam away all pettiness. Though the passages are not always fun, there is a bedrock of calm that they return us to.

I am more concerned when we don’t open enough. Then, we are caught in a living purgatory, neither in the world of relationship nor in the world of introspection. We just peer out from our isolation, alongside of life, though not living it. Opening enough is the razor’s edge between loving and suffering the world.

Just what, then, is the charge of a responsible teacher? If you squeeze a drop of iodine into a glass of water, it will color the entire glass. So, let’s not talk about teaching only to the mind. Whatever we carefully place in the mind will stir through the entire being before us. And what are we to do with that? How are we to hold them? How near is appropriate? How far away is criminal?

True education is messy, never clear, and the lessons shift and the boundaries change. So much of what we’re called to do for each other is to simply listen and tend: to be a mirror of what the other is thinking, and to echo back with clarity and compassion what the other is saying.

The call of a noble teacher or loving friend is to guide someone so thoroughly to their own center that they, in hard-earned innocence, become their own teacher. Inevitably, the life of expression helps us endure being undone and helps us keep each other company as we suffer and love the world.

Questions to Walk With

  • In your journal, describe a time when you had to unlearn something in order to become more truly yourself. Later, write a poem or story about someone freeing themselves from an inheritance that was someone else’s dream.
  • In conversation with a friend or loved one, imagine the school of your dreams in great detail.

This excerpt is from Mark’s new book, Falling Down and Getting Up, due out from St. Martin’s Essentials, Sept. 5, 2023. Available for pre-order now.

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The Arts of Liberation

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