There is, I believe, a sweeter freedom in submission than in independence. This freedom is less about freedom to do things, and more about freedom from things— freedom from loneliness, fear, insecurity.
We walk among each other blind, mostly, to the times and the ways those around us have been lonely, afraid, insecure. Yet we feel our own loneliness, fears, and insecurities so keenly. Our painful reality is that it is hard to be alone yet not feel lonely, to be faced with fears yet not be fearful, or to be unpopular yet be secure in self-esteem. Our insecurities and fears shape who we are and the decisions that we make.
We are in a way bound to our insecurities and fears: they keep us from taking risks, asking for help, and being “ourselves.” (I’d think that most anyone who’s been through middle school knows this, and truthfully most of us will wrestle with it for most of our lives.) At our core, we want to be free from these things, and more than that, we want to exchange them—how sweet would it be to instead be known and be loved?
But to be known and be loved doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It necessarily involves parties beyond the bubble of the independent self. I think we’ve come to consider freedom primarily as independence: freedom to do what we like, say what we think, pursue what we desire. This bubble-building kind of freedom, or autonomy, is what John Stuart Mill famously argued for in On Liberty: it is pursuit of individual interests without interference by others so long as only the individual is put at risk. More simply put, this is the harm principle: “do what you want as long as you aren’t harming anyone else.” The bubble gives us freedom to govern our own actions. But what if that isn’t the only kind of freedom we need, or if it isn’t even the kind of freedom that we need most deeply? What if, more pressingly, our heart of hearts yearns—and I think it does—to exchange our loneliness, insecurities, and fear for the freedom of being known and loved?
Let us for a moment imagine life as indeed walking among each other. I can decide to walk in any manner of speeds, styles, or directions, but if my issue is that I want to walk together with someone, then making those decisions on my own will be of no benefit. Without looking around me and taking into account someone else’s pace and direction, I’d get nothing more than bumping into a stranger or briefly taking a few steps in synchronization before falling out of step again, the way my car’s turning signal does a couple flashes in sync with the car in front of me at a stoplight until they fall out of step again, each entirely ignorant of the other’s rhythm.
If I want to walk together with others, then I have to change my pace and direction to match theirs. I might end up walking slower than I prefer, in the shade when I would prefer sun, and so on. Yet for the company— and even when there is no contact or conversation between us, for the warmth of knowing we’re in it together—it’s a worthwhile sacrifice. This then is what I mean by submission: sacrificing what I want, for who I want to be with. To submit literally means to “put [oneself] under” (from the Latin mitterie: put, sub—, under). Submission is putting one’s own interests under another’s, freely letting the pursuit of individual desires be less important and less ultimate. It is to “in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4, NIV).
We sacrifice and submit this way for our family and friends; it’s part of what makes those relationships meaningful to us, and part of how we prove that they are meaningful to us. The hours that go into surprise birthday parties, emergency hospital trips, and listening to feelings and frustrations are our submission to one another. They’re acknowledgement that our individual desires for our time are less ultimate than the needs of those whom we love. And when we voluntarily put each other’s interests above our own in this way, when we enter relationships of submission, we open ourselves up to being known and being loved. Amongst family and friends we find freedom from our loneliness, insecurities, and fears. We know that we won’t be judged or misunderstood or any less loved for what we do or say around them. Even when apart, there is freedom to be bold and take risks that comes from the awareness of unconditioned support.
But this all is speaking in ideals.
Even siblings, parents, and the best of friends will inevitably fail, betray, and misunderstand us at some point; in our relationships there is an understanding that the closer we are, the more vulnerable we are to being hurt. Submitting to others and their interests opens us up to other people’s flaws, ignorance, and selfishness.
Yet entering relationships of submission means submitting to this possibility, putting others above our personal interest of not getting hurt. Our autonomous independent-self bubbles don’t leave room for others to get in our way, complicate our lives, or hurt us, but they also leave little room for the possibility of others knowing us and loving us. How freeing it is to be both thoroughly known and still loved: to have someone know your deep insecurities and fears, to have someone know how you, too, have been flawed and ignorant and selfish—maybe even have suffered hurt from you because of that—and yet, still love you. We may or may not reach this fullness of love in our relationships in this lifetime on this earth, but the prospect is so sweet and the not-quite-there-yet form is still so rewarding that we strive on towards it anyhow. It is worth it to submit to one another in spite of the ways we hurt and get hurt, because that is where we find meaningful relationship for our whole selves.
And so submission is less freedom’s opposite than its beginning. Seeking freedom without submission we really end up with neither, but seeking to submit to one another we end up with a more whole and more lovely form of freedom, which speaks more truly to our deeper desire to love and belong.