Happy Independence Day weekend! I don’t know where you live, but here in Wisconsin we already have a surge of out-of-state traffic clogging the interstate as everyone gets a jump start on a long weekend of fireworks and grilled food. As we stare down another Fourth of July, I’ve been pondering what it means to be an American on this holiday.
Although we are celebrating our independence from British rule, this holiday is pretty much synonymous with freedom in general. We Americans love our freedom. People fight and die for freedom here. But what does freedom actually mean? How do we define it?
Average Joe American would likely say that freedom is about making our own choices in life, freedom to pursue our dreams without oppressive rulers micromanaging us. Compared to Syria or North Korea, we have plenty of freedom, and we should be grateful for that.
But we are not as free as we like to think we are.
Many people are forced to work because of medical insurance. It’s very costly to get sick or injured in this country. If you or a family member needs care, you need some way to pay for it, and it comes at a heavy price. Perhaps even the price of retirement. Particularly if the current administration gets its way and Medicare essentially disappears.
And while we all, in theory, have the freedom to pursue our career dreams, in reality there are many people who can’t afford the education required for those dreams. Others have no time or energy to get their dreams off the ground because they are working themselves to the bone in low wage jobs just trying to pay the rent. Poverty is a sucking whirlpool that is difficult to escape from, particularly because the cost of living has gone way up while wages have stagnated.
Even for those with good jobs often work long hours because our bosses demand ever more of us. Evenings, weekends, and even vacations are spent answering phone calls and emails, and logging into work remotely. We aren’t free from work, ever.
And why do we even work to begin with? To pay for stuff. More and more stuff, as we earn more money. We never have enough money because there’s always more stuff to buy, and even those who have everything they’ve ever wanted still want more money. It’s an addiction. There is never a point where someone says, “I have enough. I think I will just sit back and enjoy it now.”
None of the above sounds like freedom to me. It sounds like wage slavery. Not only that, but we are slaves to our own churning minds. Lots of people lie awake at night, unable to rest because they endlessly worry about something in the future they have to do, or that might happen. We are slaves to our own anxieties.
So many of us live our lives ruled by the clock. Every minute is accounted for. Doing nothing is considered a luxury at best, laziness at worst. Never mind that it is necessary for our well-being. Even kids are scheduled down to the minute. We program them from an early age to fill their days with productivity, trying to prove we are worthy through what we do all day. They are trained to prepare for a future of making money instead a future of making a contribution to the betterment of humanity. They are under more and more pressure to perform. Record numbers of teens suffer from depression and anxiety because of this…well, lack of freedom and autonomy. It’s no longer safe to make mistakes, explore who they are, and sit around daydreaming. The free-est part of life has become a prison of adult expectations.
The silly thing is, pretty much everyone hates this cultural setup. Few people love getting up on Monday morning. Few love hectic days and having to work on vacation and having to endure the bitterness when their kid’s team loses. We all just force each other to go along with this because we want to believe that one day it will all be worth it and we will get to the top of the mountain we’re working so hard to climb. We actually push others down in our scramble to the top. The problem is, there is no top. Even if we achieve our goals, we are satisfied for a disturbingly short time before we start climbing a new mountain, all over again. And at the end of life we realize we spent our lives striving for the future and missing out on the present – missing out on our entire life.
The thing about freedom is you need to be able to choose your own path through life. Some Americans have very little, if any, choice about which path they pursue. Some have much more choice but are prone to cultural pressures and end up doing what is expected of them. Social pressure is difficult to ignore.
What does this all mean? Americans certainly enjoy more freedoms than a lot of countries, but we are not entirely free. When people of every background, race, gender, and social class are treated equally, when everyone has affordable access to higher education, when all jobs pay a living wage, when people who suffer from physical and mental ailments can get the help they need without going bankrupt…then we will be free. When we have a comfortable balance of work and leisure, then we will be free. When women’s bodies and decisions are not overruled by men, then we will be free. When people can be who they are without being ridiculed or bullied or discriminated against, then we will be free.
In the meantime, have a hot dog, watch some fireworks, and hope you don’t have to answer too many emails this weekend.
Happy Independence Day.