If crows don’t struggle, they will never know the freedom they have. This is what Kana tells Rakka in episode four of Haibane Renmei when the latter suggests laying out a smorgasbord of sorts for the birds, picking out the things they might like from amid the rubbish rather than burning it all away. But if the crows could feast so easily, they would never leave the courtyard, let alone the city. They would never soar high above the walls that keep the people of Glie confined their whole lives.
In other words, there is no freedom without struggle. It cannot be realized without hardship. Because a life of ease enslaves us, be we crows or otherwise, lulling us into embracing the prison of familiar comforts and easy solutions. If the haibane fed the birds directly, the crows would no longer need to pursue the potential that they carry, be it in flying far and wide in search of food, or in learning to use tools and manipulate objects, like the latch on the incinerator.
By struggling, the crows find new freedom.
How far is this observation about crows applicable to us too, I wonder? Do we also require struggle in order to reach our potential and discover our freedom?
So often, we respond to struggle as if it is the greatest opponent to our freedom, to our self-discovery and growth, the realization of our dreams and purpose on earth. Or as if it is a sign that something is wrong, the system is broken, an enemy is afoot. “Freedom is not having to struggle!” we think. “I will be free once I no longer have to answer to so and so, or fulfill this requirement, or be responsible for that thing, or deal with this garbage,”—the latter quite literally in Kana’s case! (She spends the whole episode cleaning up garbage.) All these things that we struggle with are delaying our freedom, quenching it, crushing it, robbing us of it.
But are they?
Or are we like the crows? Do we need these struggles in order to discover the deeper, broader, and more transformative expressions of freedom that we were designed with the capacity to experience?
Do these struggles equip us, teach us new skills? Do they push us to go beyond the walls of the city and discover new lands, new possibilities, a new life even?
Can constraints actually be integral to the fulfillment of our freedom?
In society and in community, they certainly are. I am free to walk the streets after dark in my neighborhood only because my fellow citizens are not free to intimidate, bully, assault, or otherwise put me in danger. My freedom requires that limitations be set on the freedoms of others, and vice versa. This is the heart of the social contract that makes community possible.
But do constraints work on the level of the individual as well, and in spiritual terms, not just legal?
I find it interesting that the Bible doesn’t actually talk a whole lot about freedom. Love, healing, provision, abundance, authority, purpose, yes; freedom, not so much.
There is that one famous verse though,
Usually, it’s just the very final clause that gets quoted though, about the truth setting us free. Tragically, when disconnected from the rest of the verse and the context of the passage, that clause can be transformed into a club with which to beat others to death. Sentiments like “I’m just telling the truth, it’s not my problem if you don’t like it,” and “the truth hurts,” are heartless perversions of Jesus’ promise here.
Before Jesus promises freedom, he establishes a constraint: “If you abide in my word.” There’s a precondition to experiencing freedom, and it’s a pretty hefty one: relationship with Jesus and following his leadership. That constraint also has a condition. It requires a process, a developmental arc: becoming his disciple, allowing ourselves to be transformed and redefined by the fact that we now follow him. After that, there’s also a refinement process, a new skill that is unlocked: “you will know the truth.” You will learn how to discern and recognize something that, right now, you aren’t familiar enough with. You will grasp things and see and understand things that are not on your radar yet; fundamental things, that remain shrouded in mystery for those who do not yet know God.
And at the end of that very long process, that concatenation of personal struggles as we surrender to Jesus’ leadership and allow ourselves to be changed, well, then there’s freedom.
This process is echoed in another famous saying of Jesus’:
In Hebrew tradition, a yoke was not just that wooden contraption that collared together two oxen so they’d pull in the same direction at the same pace (a powerful enough image on its own!); it was also a metaphor for the teaching of a rabbi. Jesus is inviting us here to come alongside him, join with him and let him determine the speed and trajectory of our life’s journey, and learn from him all the while. And the end result is freedom from burdens, from fatigue, from burnout, from stress. Whoever said the scriptures weren’t relevant for the modern world?
In both of these promises from Jesus, freedom isn’t so much a right, as it is a fruit. And to get that fruit, there’s a whole lot of constraint and struggle along the way.
Am I saying that freedom isn’t a right? Not quite. But I am saying that freedom is a lot of other things as well—that it requires that we consider the multiple facets of its constitution, the other aspects of freedom that sit alongside “right,” sometimes rubbing up against it uncomfortably, dangerously even. For freedom to work in society, and in our own individual lives before God, it needs constraints; it needs struggle; it needs to be told sometimes, “that is not for you,” or at least, “not yet.”
Am I saying that instantaneous freedom isn’t possible? Not at all! We experience that too in our lives with Christ. After all, he came to announce freedom to the captives and release to the prisoners, and there is an element of immediacy to that moment when announcement becomes reality. But here too, in the rest of that passage from Isaiah 61—which Jesus himself quoted when he began his public ministry—we see that this declaration of freedom is part of an ongoing process that ultimately sees the former prisoners transformed into skilled, capable people, responsible for rebuilding broken cities and communities. Here again are those elements of discipleship, growth, and maturation, matched with new skill and action.
Jesus is saying, “Here, take my hand. Come learn from me and grow, my child. Then you will walk in the fullness of freedom.”
So if you’re struggling right now, take heart. It doesn’t mean that you’re failing or on the wrong path. In fact, it’s likely you are exactly where you need to be, and that you’re actually walking the path of freedom. There are struggles and constraints and what can feel like long, drawn-out delays on that path. But you are growing, maturing, and honing new skills all the while.
And one day soon, you’ll soar.
Haibane Renmei can be streamed in the US on Funimation, or purchased on DVD elsewhere.