The Fourth of July holiday in the United States is a celebration of freedom and autonomy from Great Britain. The declaration of Independence laid not only the foundation of a new nation, but a new concept in the world. It is the turning point in history towards self-rule, not governance ordained by a privileged, elite class. In addition to the traditional celebration of cookouts and fireworks, is there another way to honor such a bold act in the name of freedom?
Freedom can be thought of in two different ways. The first is the ‘freedom from’ externalities. Freedom from is, for example, the freedom from tyranny, responsibility and other external forces. Typically our conversations about freedom revolve around this idea of freedom from. But this is a limited view of freedom. None of us is ever completely in control of- and thus can never be free from- external conditions; we are not free to decide the weather, much less more personal, though still ultimately external forces, like our own genetic make-up.
The second idea of freedom is the proactive freedom to. In comparison to freedom from, the freedom to construct is one of empowerment. It does not imply freedom from external conditions, but rather focalizes on our ability to choose how to perceive, and thus feel, toward those external conditions. For example, I cannot choose the weather, but I have a choice as to whether I can see it positively (any excuse not to go for my morning run is welcome) or negatively (another day of gray skies is depressing) and thus whether I will be upset when it rains. While I am not free from inclement weather, I am free to see it as a net positive.
Let’s take another example. Some people find themselves in marriages in which in-laws are a constant source of strife. Rather than imagining an alternate universe in which one is free from the critical mother-in-law, it is more constructive to embrace the freedom to dismiss her cruel comments and not allow them to damage the marriage.
Freedom from is a very limited concept of freedom. Our childish dreams are to be free of conditions – to do whatever I want, whenever I want, with no negative consequences. Maturity is learning that this simple view of freedom does not exist in life.
Viktor Frankl, the author of Man’s Search for Meaning, once remarked that, to counterbalance the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast, a Statue of Responsibility should be erected on the West Coast, for “freedom is only part of the story and half the truth.” Liberty without responsibility is chaos and anarchy. It is only with responsibility that liberty is meaningful.
This July Fourth, try celebrating the personal freedom you have to choose your attitude in life. To supplement the obligatory hamburgers and sparklers, try creating a list of conditions you are free from (such as disease, poverty, unreasonable intrusion on your personal life etc.). Reflect on these conditions with a sense of gratitude. Then compose a list of conditions you are not free from (like taxation, the weather, health issues, the intrusion of in-laws, etc). Meditate on how, though you are not free from these conditions, you are free to choose your attitude toward these conditions.
Happy Independence Day!
Michael Winters is a Psychologist in Houston focusing on marriage counseling and therapy. Michael received his PhD from the University of Memphis and has been practicing since 1991.