Independence Day always gets me thinking about freedom. This year, however, I’ve been tossing the idea about more so than usual. Having earned my Master of Divinity degree, finished my ministerial internship, and been welcomed into preliminary fellowship for UU ministry, I am now in a liminal space waiting to start a chaplain residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital. For ten weeks, I am virtually unscheduled and uncommitted. I have no books to read or papers to write. I do not owe anyone anything other than what I choose to offer, like this reflection. It seems I am free to do what I please when I please.
Sweet freedom! I don’t think I’ve had a summer vacation like this since the summer before college, which was nearly forty years ago.
As an American, I have been steeped in the waters of liberty and fed the narrative of the “land of the free.” But as I have become more aware of the systemic advantages I have received automatically because of the color of my skin, I have come to interrogate that narrative. How can the U.S. be the land of the free, when we have 25% (and rising) of the world’s prison population and only 5% of the total human population of the planet? That statistic alone seems to undermine everything I was taught about this country’s origins.
And the story of the Declaration of Independence doesn’t appear to me to be as positive as I once thought it was. Particularly after 19 months of a world pandemic that continues to rage on, the claim of independence seems to be an illusion or more accurately, a delusion. The virus, a tiny packet of genetic material, has laid low millions of multi-cellular thinking animals, known by themselves as humans. COVID-19 has humbled us. Can we ever be free from each other when the reality of our existence on this planet is interdependence?
Even after the United States established itself as a nation independent from English rule, the U.S. continued to maintain strong ties to Great Britain culturally, economically, and politically. Today, the United Kingdom remains one of our staunchest allies.
So, when we Americans talk about freedom and liberty, what do we mean? Is it freedom to do as we please, freedom from each other, or a combination of both? The Declaration of Independence clearly rejects the rule of England over the colonies, but did the founders reject all governance in their statement that all humans have “certain unalienable rights”? In other words, did they intend a free-for-all, where individuals could do as they please regardless of the impacts to others? I don’t think so. Yet, it seems all I hear of late is the assertion that freedom means just that—freedom from responsibility to each other and to that “interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”
Thinking about my own life, I realize that even in this liminal period I still have many responsibilities to those all around me. I will never be free of those. And that’s okay because I am a social animal defined as much by my relationships to others and Earth as I am by my individual characteristics and accomplishments. As I sit on the balcony of this vacation condo staring at the ocean, I am realizing that individuality and individualism are not the same concept. Perhaps, it is time to declare independence from individualism to find the balance between individual and community and to find what is best about being individuals in community. Maybe in making a declaration of interdependence, we can find at last the sweet freedom we seek.