30 September 2014

On freedom, pt 1: Much is required

The Oxford English Dictionary defines freedom in the following ways:

1.    The power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint:
1.1  Absence of subjection to foreign domination or despotic government:
1.2  The state  of not being imprisoned or enslaved:
1.3  The state of being physically unrestricted and able to move easily: (freedom from)
1.4  The state of not being subject to or affected by (a particular undesirable thing)
1.5  The power of self-determination attributed to the will; the quality of being independent of fate or necessity.

In the 1700-1800s, most people immigrated to the colonies for the opportunity to create a better material life, that is, "freedom from want." A life where the centuries of rigid socioeconomic structures imposed in the monarchical governments did not apply (that is not to say that there weren't social or economic strata in the colonies, but we are the land of "rags to riches" based on one's own work ethic) and where each man would have an opportunity to be measured on his own merit and character. (There was also a land ownership component to this, which the colonies had in abundance.)

That reason, along with the below, are what make us unique as a nation; these reasons are durable and are integrated into the fabric of our national identity (and I would say that no other country in the world can claim all of them as attributes of their national character):

1. Freedom from oppression (tyranny)
2. Freedom to worship
3. Freedom from fear
4. Freedom to create

In each of these reasons, that word, "freedom" is inherent. And if we look at the first definition of freedom, the word "power" jumps out, and if we look at the last definition, we see "independent." There is power in freedom, personal power, the ability to self-determine, to think, believe, act as one wants, independently (of course, not in the Hobbesian sense, let's hope).  And I don't imagine to create a rosy picture of our history, which was difficult, steeped in conflict over these ideals (to which many of us are incredulous for we cannot even conceive that one would NOT want these freedoms) and which had its own internal hypocrisies as freedom was only meted to a portion of the population. BUT, the notion, the concept, of absolute personal freedom is UNIQUELY American.

I think the hardest concept to collectively wrap our heads around is that we have something that is so precious, yet I think we as a society often take it for granted. We have always had it; perhaps we have lost sight of what a gift it is? We have the individual opportunity to become anything that we wish - it doesn't mean it will be easy, it doesn't mean will succeed, we will more often fail, but there is nothing that prevents us from the pursuit of our aims.

How do I know this? Because I am the child of an immigrant who left her country in the 1960s. Because I wore the same clothes to school for days in a row and pretended to do extra homework because I didn't want anyone to see my meager lunch (or sometimes entire lack thereof). Because I excelled in school despite having no academic guidance at home because my mom was working two jobs, and despite having to work myself after school and on weekends. Because I played sports in hand-me-down shoes and made varsity anyway, despite enduring nicknames based on my ethnicity and my poverty. Because I dared apply to the best schools and bore the cost through student loans to become the first in my family to graduate from college. How did it happen?

Because I wanted something more and better for myself and I knew that if I didn't work for it, it would never happen and more importantly, there was nothing to prevent me from working for it. Crucial to this was a mother who made hard choices. When we were in middle school, my mother made the decision to live in an upper income area, despite having no car and no way to get to public transportation but a five-mile walk, because the school system was better for me and my sister. And despite intermittent additional hardships, during which time I lived with non-family, and by other matters of providence (or, as Malcolm Gladwell would say, critical moments of societal intervention, in the form of teachers and coaches who pushed me and others who allowed me to believe such things were possible), I made my way from Polk Street to the halls of Wellesley College.

I have the freedom of independent self-determination, but with that freedom, I also believe I have a responsibility to become more than simply self-serving and self-gratifying. I believe that I must become part of something that makes us as a collective better. It is what led me to the military; it is part of why I want to go to law school, it is part of my solution-seeking nature, to find the best possible outcome and to help others achieve. I also believe I have a responsibility to continually grow as a person, and find a way to utilize whatever knowledge I have to a greater purpose that personal promotion or material accumulation. I am not some gracious self-sacrificing lamb, it's just that I want more for us as citizens and as a nation.

This country gives us the greatest gift we could have, and, in the words of one famous revolutionary, circa 30 A.D, "To those who much is given much is required."

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