Where Freedom Starts? Fourth of July Reflections
The burly adult kept screaming at Josh in a fake Southern accent. "Come on, boy. You can do better than that! Gimme the ball." His frustration beyond the breaking point, he grabbed Josh and tossed him and the ball into the air. My two friends and their high school age sons watched in bewildered amusement, as Josh kicked his way loose and tumbled to the drive. Was it funny or abusive? I couldn't tell, so I said nothing. Josh burst into tears and ran from the court. "I want to go home," he moaned beneath his sobs. A Fourth of July picnic had become a painful life experience for Josh. And as an adult onlooker, I knew I hadn't done my job. I could see Josh's difficulty trying to play with older teenagers and adults. I knew the bad humor of this out-of-control adult was troubling him. My intuition told me to speak up. And I didn't. Freedom -- that's what we celebrate on the Fourth of July. As we watch Eastern European countries struggle to learn how to make decisions and build an economy based on individual and collective freedom, it's not hard to recognize the benefits of our freedom here, no matter how imperfect. Our freedom, though, demands vigilance from each of us. This small incident at a picnic gives a hint where freedom grows or contracts. It's easy to think of freedom as a right and the responsibility of our government. And it is. Yet every time anyone is disrespected without protest, our right to respect is weakened. Every time a place that is supposed to be safe becomes physically or emotionally threatening, freedom is reduced. Our collective freedom rests on how we treat each other. A recent trip to the new FDR Memorial put freedom in the context of another era. In his 1941 Annual Message to Congress, President Roosevelt sought to encourage a nation rocked by economic depression. He proclaimed his commitment to the four freedoms: " Freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear." As if he knew what was ahead for him and the nation, in his first inaugural speech in 1933, he proclaimed his oft quoted challenge to each of us: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." It was fear that prevented me from speaking up at the picnic. I didn't want to offend either the adult or Josh. Fear is the biggest obstacle to my personal freedom. Our collective fears become obstacles to our national and world freedom. I find it easy to go to one of two extremes in thinking about freedom and celebrating the fourth of July. One line of thought says:" Wow, what a great county! We are really fortunate. Let's celebrate." The other point of view counters: "It's a great county and we have some problems. I wish Congress or somebody would do something about them." That deeper inner voice haunts me, however. It reminds me that I have a personal responsibility to take action to preserve and foster the freedoms FDR claimed for us. When I'm honest, I recognize that fear is the enemy of freedom for most of us. It haunts us at every turn -- in our families, at work, in our communities, and as a nation. Bill Wilson, a cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous and a prolific writer on fear and freedom, summed up his fears fairly succinctly: "fear of losing what I have or not getting what I want". Wilson and other writers about personal and spiritual growth offer us some hints for winning the struggle between freedom and fear. I turned to those principles again as I thought about Josh and FDR's messages. Here are some of practical suggestions I've found helpful:
1) Let it begin with me
Each of us has to be free for all of us to be free. I can't change you or your actions. I can however practice freedom from fear. I can stretch to accept and respect each person. That's hard to do if I can't respect myself. I learn respect for myself by accepting myself as I am and being willing to grow and change. No matter what others did or thought, I had a responsibility to myself to speak up when I realized Josh felt under attack.
2) Let go of the results
The paradox of acceptance and surrender are an important clue to freedom from fear. We can't change something we don't admit or accept. Admitting we are scared and giving voice to our concerns reduces their power. The illusion that we control outcomes is another obstacle to freedom. Letting go of our fierce grip on a particular result often leads to a better outcome. Speaking up sometimes means upsetting people.
Faith and trust are a strong antidote to fear. Yet fear can't be extracted like a bad tooth or willed away by obsessive thinking and worry. Fear is often coaxed out the door over time by a growing belief in the power of good, how ever you choose to define that power. Agnostics, atheists and believers alike find ways for their beliefs to be a foundation for a less fear-based way of living. Learning to trust our inner voice simplifies difficult decisions.
4) Pay attention to your thoughts
How would it be if someone whose respect you cherished could see all your thoughts? Might be a little embarrassing? We tend to become what we think. If we are plagued by negative thoughts, they tend to become real in our lives. Freedom from want and fear often start by a willingness to think different thoughts. The popularity of positive affirmations is a recognition of the power of what we think.
5) Talk to each other and reason things out
We are more alike than different, despite the many ways we differ from one another. Most of us want to be loved and to express our love and talents. Learning to detach from the emotion of a situation, to listen, and to respectfully communicate takes us light years in reducing fear and expanding love. Unacceptable behavior can be confronted in a respectful way, with practice.
6) Give a lot of love!
Our hearts help our minds make peace with our souls. The capacity to both give and receive love is for many of us a learned skill. It comes from practice. Stretching to see another's point of view, to give some encouragement, to speak up when it's scary without judgment or condemnation -- love grows as we exercise these rights and responsibilities. Everyone wins when love allows us to act in spite of our fears. As love grows, so does freedom. Fear's grip is lightened a little bit more. The world becomes a little safer. And FDR's vision of the four freedoms becomes more real for all of us.