“I can do whatever I want to.”
“It is a free country.”
“Don’t tell me what I can’t do!”
We seem to live in a society where these phrases are all too familiar and accepted without proper reflection. Too many irresponsible actions are performed under the guise of personal freedom. We do indeed live in a “free” country, yet we are not free to do whatever we choose. The privilege of freedom is tied to the responsibility of freedom. Much has been written on this subject, but I am particularly drawn to an editorial in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution twenty-five years ago (in 1996) entitled, “A Plea For The Common Man.”
Since its founding more than 200 years ago, America has celebrated the merits of the common man. Rejecting a European that governing was a right reserved to the propertied rich, the American experiment was founded on the notion that all men were created equal and that a person could not be measured by the size of their bank account … as a nation, we have begun to accept the notion of “opting out” of public programs in favor of more private individual approaches. America threatens to become a country in which the well-off professional class is sealed away from the rest of the nation by walled communities, private security, and separate schools and health care systems… In the long run, attempting to opt out of social challenges cannot work and the cheap security promised by that approach cannot last. Problems such as ignorance, disease, crime, and social unrest cannot be quarantined into one area or economic class. They do not respect boundaries or walls or wealth. That is the deeper meaning of Thomas Jefferson’s phrase, “All men are created equal.” We are all in this together, as Americans.
I am concerned about the current trend to look at society as “us vs. them.” This trend has become pervasive for political discussions, social interactions, education, medical care, medical insurance and other areas of our social discourse. When we engage in such activity, we assume that we better in some way than others—we are worthy, and they are not. Our communities, our society, our democracy and our government are threatened to their very core with this dangerous ethos. We lose our moral compass; we are making judgments that are fraught with difficulty and contradiction; and we are willing to set ourselves above others.
When our exercise of personal choices wrongfully affects other people, we are irresponsibly using our freedom. You see, our freedom is not really ours. It is a gift, and we must use that gift wisely. Great sacrifices have been made on our behalf. And we must honor those sacrifices. We can do most of the things that we want to do but we cannot do everything. The laws of physics tell us that for every action there is a reaction. The same principles apply to social interactions. For everything we do, we must consider the consequences of those deeds and make sure we are using our free choices responsibly. We must always answer to others and to powers greater than us.
The take home message – it is great to live in a free country. However, we must remember that freedom is not an absolute right. We must behave in a proper and responsible manner in all of our actions. Only then can we truly be free and exhibit true love for others.