Independence Day: a celebration of choice

I’ve been seeing some posts on Facebook about the Fourth of July being a problematic holiday because in the United States we are even still needing to witness a fuller sense of “liberty and justice for all”. And really, I can’t argue with that. We have come a long way but still have much further to go as a nation so that each citizen can enjoy the same level of  liberty and access to justice on a daily basis.

But somehow I’ve thought of the Fourth of July a little differently for a while. I like the concept of “Independence Day”, but, at the risk of sounding unpatriotic, I think of it more on an individual level than a national one, simply because that concept resonates with me. Some of the definitions of the word “independent” in the Oxford Dictionary (I know, somewhat ironic to use a British dictionary today, but it’s a good one) include “free from outside control; not depending on another’s authority”, “capable of thinking or acting for oneself”, and “not depending on something else for strength or effectiveness”.

From those definitions I get the sense that the concept of independence, which is associated with freedom,  is closely linked to the concept of choice. Part of being free is having options. When I worked in a prison, I was very aware of the lack of choices for the inmates. Obviously people in prison do not have many choices for their activities, and they are not able to choose how to schedule their days. They have to eat whatever they are given other than maybe some food they can buy from canteen if they have money. Their options as far as personal care products are very limited.

I recall picking up a young man in our re-entry program on the day he was released and taking him to Target to pick up a few essentials. He was so overwhelmed by all the choices of toothpaste and deodorant that he had to just stop in the aisle for a moment and take it all in. This is a common experience for people recently released from prison; they are not accustomed to having the freedom to make even the simplest of choices.

Viktor E. Frankl, an Austrian survivor of the Holocaust, wrote this in his book Man’s Search for Meaning: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” When I visit prisons, I try to remind the inmates that no person or situation can stop them from choosing how to think or how to respond, and that is a great power to have even in moments that look hopeless and desperate. Encouraging people to embrace this freedom is not meant to minimize the actual struggles they face or to relieve the wider society of its responsibility to mitigate the suffering of all citizens, be it within the prison system or due to poverty and other dire situations. Not at all. But if Frankl discovered this power through his experience in a Concentration Camp, it must be undeniably available to each of us even in the most awful circumstances on earth. 

All of us, even those who are called “free”, are tormented daily by thoughts that would enslave us. The thoughts are familiar and may come in our own voices. Things like “I can’t do this”, “I feel worthless”, “I am so stupid”, “This is hopeless”. Sometimes they come to us in the voice of another person: “You will never finish that” or “You’re just like your father”. And sometimes they are systemic or societal voices that make us feel like less than God created us to be. But we do always have a choice of how to reply, and it starts in our thoughts.

Mary Baker Eddy wrote quite a bit about mental and spiritual freedom. In Science and Health, she says: “Like our nation, Christian Science has its Declaration of Independence. God has endowed man with inalienable rights, among which are self-government, reason, and conscience” (p. 106). Based on other things she said, it would seem that she is referring to our right to choose our actions and thoughts broadly, including how we think about our bodies and whether we allow ourselves to accept thoughts of disease and limitation.

Implying that we have some things to learn from those who lived at the time of the Revolution, Eddy says, “If a random thought, calling itself dyspepsia, had tried to tyrannize our forefathers, it would have been routed out by their independence and industry” (Science and Health, p. 175). So we actually have the right to be independent (i.e. to think for ourselves, as the definition says) and choose how to respond to thoughts of physical as well as mental ailments and limitations. Note: To be clear, this does NOT mean that it is our fault if we are ill. But we do have a choice in how to react when we are not feeling well or when we receive a discouraging diagnosis.

Along these lines, I found another quote from Eddy interesting as well, particularly given the news this past week of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in a highly publicized case involving the company Hobby Lobby and the question of whether its insurance policy would cover birth control for employees. I noticed also on Facebook (such a great news source...not really) a couple posts implying that after this decision Christian Scientists would be free to not cover their employees for any medical care. Such a move would be outlandish and clearly not in line with Eddy’s intentions in establishing Christian Science, as I feel is evidenced in this quote.

She writes: “Truth crushed to earth springs spontaneously upward, and whispers to the breeze man’s inalienable birthright — Liberty. ‘Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.’ God is everywhere. No crown nor sceptre nor rulers rampant can quench the vital heritage of freedom — man’s right to adopt a religion, to employ a physician, to live or to die according to the dictates of his own rational conscience and enlightened understanding” (Miscellany, p. 128).

One of the things I appreciate most about my faith tradition is the respect for an individual’s right to make choices. I appreciate our nation’s founding on the concept of individual freedom as well, even if we have a ways to go to see that freedom enacted equally for every citizen. And I pray that we all come to a place of deeper understanding of and respect for one another’s choices as well as the things that we did not choose, such as our race, ethnicity, gender, and economic backgrounds.

Today I celebrate our mental and spiritual independence that no one can take away, and I encourage us all to enjoy making wise, informed, healthy and inspired choices in regard to our well-being and that of others. The fact that we have that opportunity is worthy of a few fireworks and maybe even a piece of blueberry pie or strawberry shortcake. Happy Independence Day to each one of you!