Like most U.S. citizens, I enjoyed the Fourth of July earlier this month, as a mid-summer landmark, a point to pause and reflect on the amazing good fortunes that we have in this country, to think about the sacrifices by so many people that have made our freedoms possible, and to remember July 4th family gatherings from years ago. Even the persistent summer rains could not extinguish the warmth of such fond memories.
Yet the truth of our living is that it continually spawns new insights and memories, the ones that I might recall in years to come. And so it was on the Fourth of July this year that I thought about the phrase “Independence Day” and all that it conveys about freedom, our country, the world and our lives. While the thoughts were not necessarily the relaxing kind that one might associate with a summer holiday, they nonetheless found sanctuary in my mind as I listened to and enjoyed the persistent rains on my roof.
Independence. We celebrate first the independence won from England in the Revolutionary War. Those early patriots recognized the life-smothering effects of tyranny and simply would not accept it; they acted on their own behalf, but on ours, as well. We are fiercely proud of the independence that we have portrayed as the world’s bellwether of personal liberty. We love the idea of being a nation which, blessed with every natural resource and the spirit to explore, has crafted the persona of being able to “go it alone,” to live within and for ourselves as we have needed. We treasure the right to wake up in the morning and do whatever our whims might dictate within the laws of the land. The ability to be free from influences outside of ourselves is a heady gift which few people in history have known, and for that we feel both pride and gratitude on this summer day each year. Our independence and freedom are concepts that have become so revered that we invoke them whenever we need a ready endorsement for a national action: if it’s in the name of independence and freedom, it must be good. And we say that we believe all the world should have this same, freeing independence, that it might even be our destiny to spread it.
But during an afternoon walk in the rain, I thought about the nature of freedom, and especially as it pertains to people in other places, other cultures, with other histories. If freedom is real- and not simply a refrain used by governments- then by definition people living in freedom cannot be told how to live by anyone else, the U.S. included. By whatever means they may have at their cultural disposal, such people must chart their own ways. As soon as any outside entity prescribes changes to the way those people live, the idea of freedom falls away. It’s ironic, but to impose freedoms on any society but our own constitutes a loss of freedom for that society. Free to choose means just that: free to choose freedom or not.
The counter to this conundrum is obvious, of course: if a society is not free to choose, then they have no opportunity to embrace freedom. So how can a captive population even consider what freedom might look like unless it is somehow forced upon them from the outside, which by definition is not freedom? The answer may be that he cultivation of freedom is something which is only truly achieved from inside, even when the environment for growing may be hostile.
I was thankful for the rain to cool down these heated arguments in my head! But in the end I concluded that freedom is like mercury: it is a wonderful element, difficult to grasp, and potentially dangerous in the way it is spread….