We celebrate this concept today—freedom. As a nation, as a people. We pay homage to those women and men all those years ago who fought and sacrificed and dared to believe they could exist separate from an imperial power. They believed they could be something on their own—a new civilization, an utterly creative endeavor, a huge leap of faith. Here we are– 241 years their legacy.
What have we become? What is this concept of freedom today? Who is it for? How far does it go? What is freedom… really?
It seems like we have it—so many of us have access to education, ways to work and make money, the ability to create our own business if we want—out of anything we desire. The possibilities in this country are endless—for some. For others it is a constant struggle, a question mark, this desire to be part of a nation that claims to be a home to immigrants, a melting pot of people and culture, of endless possibility, the chance for anyone to get ahead and make meaning out of this life.
We are in such a transition point right now, as a nation. Our predecessors have dared to dream of this amazing place—where “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is real. Where it is accessible, for anyone. Sure, some have tried to limit that—it is for men only. For whites only. For citizens only. Yet the dream of a dream, the returning point, has always been the Common Good, this concept that means the greatest life possible for ALL. Not a life dripping in luxury and excess for some, while others suffer wondering how they’ll feed their children or get access to health care. The dream of this country is Life and freedom and joy—for all. That everyone, by sheer virtue of being human, deserves to live a life unafraid and able to achieve their dreams, to contribute in a meaningful way to the whole.
So why isn’t it happening? Why are so many still not sure they belong here? I’m not just talking about immigrants, although of course I believe we should open our shores and our stores and our hospitals to all of them too. I’m talking about women who still get paid less than men. I’m talking about trans people who commit suicide rather than face the violent vitriol of this culture. I’m talking black men still being killed for being black. I’m talking about young people drowning in college debt and totally disillusioned with the consumerist culture they are unsuccessfully sold as the path of life. They see through it—WE see through it. This is not freedom. It can be better than this. It must be.
I worked for four years as a campus minister at a wealthy university in Dallas, TX. It was my job to create and cultivate social justice programming where college students could get involved in meaningful action and advocacy in the community. We spent many hours in a neighborhood in Dallas called Vickery Meadow, home to over 10,000 refugees from all over the world. I would bring students there for immersion experiences and service work, but mostly to build relationships with people very different from them in circumstance, but in heart, not that far away. I remember one young woman after a day immersed in the simple (what many would call poor) life of a newly arrived refugee family from Nepal said to me, “this is a happiness machine!” Another young man was incredulous– stupefied that he could find so much joy and happiness in people with almost nothing, having endured so much hardship and moved half-way around the world just to stay alive, forced to build a new life. This young man was on a fast-track business career and was conditioned to think that that was the only way to be happy—get through college, get a job, make lots of money. Happiness. He was beginning to doubt the plan.
I think this is true for so many—we are taught to cling to something insubstantial, something that does not bring happiness, that does the opposite from free us—it traps us. We go after something that cannot and does not satisfy, and then we’re left reaching, searching, and often blaming the other for what we cannot find ourselves. This seems to be at the core of every level of discrimination, every effort to take something from another, every effort to hunker down into “mine” not “yours.” We’re not happy—we can’t find the center of love within ourselves. Often, then, we cling more viciously and try harder to “look good”, “be successful”, “appear happy” disappearing into comparison games and image contests. What then, is the movement into true freedom?
Paradoxically, it’s the thing we are most trying to avoid—emptiness, solitude, stillness. Somehow in the center of nothing we find… everything. Our true self. Love. So often life takes us there, but most of us resist it. Failure comes. Death happens. The thing that we thought would bring ultimate happiness is destroyed. Depression sets in. The foggy, bogginess of life that we can’t explain but that shows up on our doorstep. Often, instead of softening and welcoming, we slam the door. We try to make more money, eat more food, drink more caffeine and alcohol, buy more shit. Nothing works. Why am I not happy? I have it all—everything they told me would bring joy. Why is it, then, so hard to find?
The path of real joy, of real freedom, it seems, is utterly counter-cultural to all the ways we try to find it. Somehow it is in the nothing… the unknown, the having no answers and the generosity that comes from just being alive.
What happens when we go into the dark? When we surrender to the emptiness? When life gets distilled into every moment simply to survive? When we stop blaming and buying and bolstering who we think we are and drop into who we really are? What compassion might we find there, what vulnerability and generosity? Like the refugee in Dallas, when everything has been taken from you, everything becomes gift. The Mexicans and Hondurans and Guatemalans and Salvadorans and Nicaraguans crossing the border don’t care about “border security.” Legal and illegal are distinctions that don’t exist for them because all that matters is Life. Hmm… that thing we say we Americans are all about. They will risk every hardship for even the possibility of a better life. That is a soul living in freedom, even as the world imprisons their bodies. That is a human being reaching for their greatest potential.
There is a freedom that comes when we simply cannot control—and as the privileged in a patriarchal culture, we have been taught to control since we were small. Yet freedom also comes when we give what we have away and we keep giving it. Sometimes this is money and material things—but it’s also our voice and our power and our humanity. I don’t mean give it away and become disempowered. I mean give it as in SHARE it, lend it, “contribute to the needs of the holy ones” as it says in Romans 12:13. Become as the Jesuits teach, a “man and woman for others.” In this way everything expands, grows, and somehow there is always more! This is true freedom—to share what we have, to give what we are, to link our arms with those on the borders of everything so that they too get the “life, liberty and happiness” that we say we believe in, that this day is all about.
We are missing the point, those of us in a privileged, cushy American life of plenty. The rifts are growing. The more we get, the more we cling, and then, the more we think there is to “take.” We become defensive and petty about what is “ours”, barricading ourselves against anything and everything different. Change and difference become things that threaten the weak fortifications of false identity. But life, and this country, is made to be multitudinous, diverse, the full spectrum of race, sexuality, ethnicity, belief, talent, intelligence and human contribution. It’s what creates strength and life. This country could be something so great. But we have to be, like my students in Dallas, willing to step out of our comfort zones, to meet the other, to give ourselves away so that we might all be truly free.