Being free is…
I recently read the young adult Divergent trilogy. The primary character, Tris, is a late teen woman trying to find her place in a dystopian future city of Chicago. Among her many quandaries is the meaning of freedom.
As a nation we have faced the same question since our inception. A large part of what we consider freedom is the right to vote and thereby determine the nature of governance. When the Founding Fathers framed the Constitution, the only persons considered worthy of this freedom were Caucasian males who owned at least 50 acres of land or had an income high enough to be taxed.
By 1850 the property qualifications to vote were removed and all white men could vote. The 15th Amendment to the US Constitution allowed all men, except Native Americans, to vote.
Women’s suffrage arrived in 1920 with the 19th Amendment. By 1924 Native Americans, until then considered citizens of their tribal nation and not the United States, became full voting citizens. Finally, in 1971, the voting age was synchronized with the age of legal responsibility when the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. Our perception of full citizenship, and therefore full freedom, has been changing constantly since we became a nation.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt added to our national perception of freedom in his State of the Union speech on Jan. 1, 1941. The rest of the world was at war, we were holding out. The Pearl Harbor attack was 11 months away and the isolationists were dead set on keeping us out of World War II. The President justified our support of foreign democracies by proposing that people “everywhere in the world” should enjoy Four Freedoms: The Freedom of Speech, The Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear.
The first two are enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution, freedom from want and fear as a right of every citizen was a new concept. Much of the New Deal and subsequent Civil Rights and anti-poverty legislation have sought with varying degrees of success to achieve these goals. The debate on the role of the government in assuring these freedoms is current and heated. There is no doubt if I am hungry, I am enslaved by the need of food. If I fear for my life I have little time to feel free.
I wondered what my fellow Cocalico Valley residents considered being free so I distributed 150 cards asking that the sentence “Being free is…” be completed in 140 characters or less. The condensed results follow: 45 percent: “self-determination,” 11 percent: “self-choice of worship,” 10 percent: “pursuit of happiness,” 7 percent: “having help available,” 7 percent: “self-acceptance,” 5 percent: “no fear,” 5 percent: “free to speak,” 2 percent: “free thought,” 2 percent: “to forgive and be forgiven,” 2 percent: “to make mistakes and learn,” 2 percent: “a gift,” 2 percent: “not living in Russia.”
One answer was a single word — “impossible.” This set me to thinking, indeed complete freedom is a fantasy. We are restricted by the genetic code we received from our parents. We are limited by the environment into which we were born. We are bound by the laws of physics. And we are subject to the laws and mores of our society. Even so, with some help and self-discipline we can use our genetic tool box to grow into a productive person. If we are fortunate enough to find the mentors and educational opportunities no environmental adversity can keep us from our goals.
We may be bound by the laws of physics but together we can build airplanes to fly, boats to cross water, and computers to store our information. Together we can use the laws of physics rather than be bound by them. And as to society when we work together for our mutual good we can craft a society which will allow us all to prosper.
Indeed, in the end we have only two freedoms. We are free to embrace our fellow human and grow together. Or we can reject humankind and remain entrapped in the confines imposed by nature and society.
I am free to be free but only if I think as we.