Since I was a small child, I’ve treasured freedom more than anything else. Perhaps it’s because I was born on the Syttende Mai, Norway’s Independence Day. Being all-Norwegian, it was natural for me to be fiercely independent since “day one.”
Maybe the reason I yearned for freedom was that I actually experienced ta lot of it, when young. I grew up surrounded by undeveloped residential lots and nearby swamplands. In those days, parents didn’t worry about kidnappings or run-away children. I’d grab a backpack with apples, books, paper, and pencil, and head off to the deep woods, where I’d pretend to be Nancy Drew, Trixie Beldon, or one of the Hardy Boys. (Even then, I knew that boys had more fun than girls did.)
Then again, perhaps my longing for freedom was a call for self-identity, a rebellious reply to the ever-ready sign and comment, “Cyndi, why can’t you just be a LADY?”
On the Fourth of July, we celebrate America’s Independence Day. The most recent occupants of this country entered on exodus, unified by a singular value: Freedom. Essentially, we’re all in America because we yearn for freedom. And we are promised life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Busily, we climb the ladders of our dreams. It’s easy to forget that the rungs are often composed of others’ sacrifices. Pioneers settled land stolen from America’s first inhabitants. China’s poor blooded the railroads, the system that forged a national economy. The cotton clothing boasted by the ladies and gentlemen that made our political system great was striped with the lashes of Africa’s blacks. Even today, workers making less than fifty cents an hour pick much of the fruit grown in the South. We feel bad—but we say, well, at least we have liberty, and the potential for “moving up.”
And I wonder, as I spend my evenings washing and walking the dogs, doing third grade homework, changing the turtle tank, calling back clients, writing a work column, and ignoring the next batch of 50 E-mails, exactly what this “freedom” is that we so cherish. Oh, I have an amazing life. I work for myself. I love what I do. I take days off work, trek on adventures, and go to Disney Land once a year. I get to believe in what I believe in, and have enough to eat. But I also have a list of to-do’s that never transform into “done’s.” For a free person, I often feel like I have very little freedom.
Then again, perhaps I have to take another look at how I define freedom.
At a certain point in my life, I defined freedom as, “Doing what I want to do.” You know. Go out drinking. Dance the night away. See whom you want to see—and ditch them when they’re needy. Work when you want to work. We know where that kind of lifestyle leads. You wake up with a headache hating the person you’re with and the job you have. And you hate the person you’ve become—because essentially, you aren’t one.
Then there is the freedom to pursue material goods. Well, that’s fun. You end up with a Beamer, a huge house payment, a one thousand dollar vacuum cleaner that keeps breaking down, and 2.5 kids who require perfect teeth and therefore, twenty thousand dollars worth of orthodontia, and suddenly, hedonism looks pretty good. If you had the energy to be a heathen, that is. Who wants to dance until dawn when you can catch a few winks?
Of course, we could take another road. Let’s say we came from the persecuted classes and now desire “special privileges” because long ago, someone stole our ancestors’ freedom. Or perhaps, we were abused as children, and now want our adulthood—and the world—to make it up to us. There’s always the torch of victim-hood and the freedom it affords. You can live off the dole (whether it be governmental or an indulgent spouse), be rude to others, hate anyone who wasn’t abused or has the “wrong” (meaning “wealthier”) skin color, and never have to help another person, because you’ve been hurt.
I’ve entertained these freedoms, as I think many of us have, and now equate each with one of three statements made in the last year by the household philosopher, Gabriel, my youngest son. Each comment was made in response to being asked to clean his room.
On the freedom equating with lack of boundaries: “You clean it. I’m not a grown up and don’t want to be.”
On the freedom to be selfish: “Why should I clean it? We can just buy more stuff.”
On the freedom to blame others for our own bad behavior: “Why should I do what you say? You’re not the boss of me.”
There’s a certain glamour, pizzazz, and tasty pleasure behind each of these perceptions of “freedom.” The problem is that none of these sets of behaviors or corresponding attitudes constitutes complete freedom.
One of the definitions of freedom is the state of living as one chooses, without any undue restraints and restrictions. This point-of-view might apply to our first, hedonistic example of living freely, until we realize that we haven’t gained anything with an exclusive emphasis on free will. At the beginning of the day, we’ve a hang over. At the end of the night, loneliness. And in the middle—what do we really learn about ourselves if no one really knows who we are? Perhaps that’s the point of living with unfettered liberty; we don’t have to be really seen, therefore, we can’t be disliked.
Another definition of freedom is the right to occupy a space and treat it as our own. In America, more than any other country, we have the right to purchase or rent our own space and to buy a lot of stuff. Then we can pretty much do with it what we want. As does Gabriel, we have our own room and can fill it with what we want. It takes a while to figure out that what we own, ends up owning us.
Yet another definition of freedom is the release or rescue from being bound, confined, or captured. No one deserves to be treated cruelly. No one. When rescued—or when we release ourselves—we require nurturing, care, and love. But the process of becoming whole must itself, leave others whole. We can ensnare others with the very judgments and activities that enslaved us. In making sure that no one gets to rule us anymore, don’t we then start to rule him or her?
It’s been said that there is no such thing as freedom without responsibility. I believe it’s true—even as I take time off from this article to play Wii with my son (who wanted my attention) and returning a call to a friend (who had a bad day) and feeding the guinea pig (who face it, didn’t really need it), there is no meaningful freedom without accountability to others.
I like having my children depend on me. As a single mother, I’m especially proud that I can send my oldest to a good college (and relieved his grades have spiraled upward since the “D” days of seventh grade.) Having shoveled out money for Sylvan Learning for a year, I felt satisfied, at watching Gabe catch up with his class in math. I like feeling like I help people, and I like pushing myself to learn more when I feel like I failed someone. I love the smell of one of my newly published books, hot off the press. Somehow, the fresh ink makes all the late nights, missed movies, and vacant vacations worth it. And I like the feeling in my heart that every day, I become better “able” to “respond” to situations that maybe yesterday, I couldn’t handle.
It’s not that I like pain or working all the time. Or always making the “right choices.” And I don’t. Once in a while, I put on my high heels and at least make it to the corner market looking a little better than I usually do. But I’ve learned that freedom doesn’t mean anything if it means sacrificing my values—or the people I love.
I dare myself to define (and live) freedom as does the Shambhallic warrior of yore; the spiritual warrior of yesterday. This philosophy involves preparing for life’s truths, including the battles and challenges that are sure to come. How can we discern good from bad, cleave through lies, yield a sword (or a pen) if we haven’t practiced perseverance, courage, and discipline? It’s a pretty poor warrior, who hasn’t been preparing on a practice field. But we must also participate in life’s bounties, as suggested by my Great Aunt Hannah, who was known for making endless versions of strawberry shortcake. Said Hannah, “If you don’t taste a little of what comes along, you’ll never know what you like.” Her statement is more applicable to this discussion than you might know, as she was MOST known for making really bad strawberry shortcake. The point isn’t to eat every dessert that comes our way, it’s to recognize by sight, smell, and perhaps a single bite, what will serve and what will not.
Can we be free—and responsible? Can we be responsible—in a way that leaves us free to love others, life, and ourselves? Can we watch the fireworks this year and enjoy them—without getting burned? Then we’re creating the America that we’ve longed to create. Then we’re living the dreams that we’ve been dreaming.