For perhaps the first time in my life I understand how fragile personal freedom is.
Recently my ex-husband, Dale, called to say goodbye. He was walking 270 miles to San Francisco, where he planned to live on the streets and witness his faith. God told him to make this trek. God also told him to sell his home and give away his money, clothing, and anything that might provide him comfort on his journey. He will be homeless– by choice.
Twenty-five years ago, Dale suffered a disabling brain injury. It stole his engineering career, his family and his self-respect. However he has been taking care of himself quite well for 16 years. He has difficulty talking, reading and writing and his judgment is not what it once was. But the injury, while physically disabling, has not made him insane. He’s a simple man with deep religious convictions.
My son and I flew to California to talk with Dale about his plan. After fruitless discussions and many sleepless nights, we finally agreed to facilitate his leaving. We met with an attorney, a realtor and a banker to help Dale get his affairs in order. We spent time with his brother’s family and did our best to reassure them. During all this, we listened to people harangue Dale for hours—telling him he’s wrong about God’s message—that he’s misinterpreting his own thoughts as God’s word.
We too question his mission. For the time being, though, we have resisted the idea that we should control his life in order to protect him. We wrestle with our decision, vacillating between fear that Dale may be hurt or killed, and anger that he has so selfishly abandoned his family and responsibilities. But my son and I made the wrenching choice to err on the side of freedom and personal dignity rather than safety. It’s a difficult line to walk. Clearly we have an obligation to protect those who can’t understand the consequences of their actions. Dale, however, does understand that his “mission” could be dangerous and difficult and uncomfortable. He believes he is doing God’s will and will be under God’s protection.
After watching so many people try to dissuade Dale from his mission, I understand how easy it would be to take his freedom away. Knowing he was safe would certainly make our lives easier. After all, he is disabled, somewhat vulnerable, and doing something most of us think is crazy. Some people feel that it’s actually our obligation to “put him away.” But, sometimes, vulnerable people also need to be protected from good intentions.
I believe that our first obligation is to defend Dale’s freedom to live his own life, to pursue his own purpose, and to do so with dignity. I believe that if we don’t protect Dale’s freedom, and the freedom of those who have other unconventional ideas, then the next time you or I set out on some hare-brained adventure, our freedom may be at risk as well.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.