This country’s heritage is all about extending freedom to others

July 6, 2011 

Are you still in a holiday spirit? I sure am. July 4 is one of my favorite holidays, right after Thanksgiving. I like it because I can show off my patriotism without celebrating war.

Don’t get me wrong: I am very grateful for all the military has done to protect our freedoms, but July 4 is simply not about that. It’s a peaceful celebration commemorating a disparate group of people uniting around the idea that all people have a birthright to live unbeholden to someone deemed “better.”

I bow my head in deep respect on Memorial Day. On Veteran’s Day, I walk up to strangers in uniform and thank them for their service. But on July 4, I don’t want to think about war, about fighting and killing. I want to think about freedom, and about the powerful idea that we can come together to serve a common good, one bigger than any of us.

That’s what democracy is, after all: the will of the people serving the needs of the people. Not the whims of a monarch, not the demands of a despot, not the might of a junta. Just people governing people.

I grew up in a small town that went all-out with fireworks for the holiday. Aerial works and ground works kept us spellbound for what seemed like hours. At the end, a sign lit up, reading: GOOD NIGHT. DRIVE SAFELY. And then another sign lit up: IT’S FUN TO LIVE IN THE CALDWELLS.

Watch out for each other, I interpreted. And have a good time.

How better to synopsize American life?

Years later, I lived in another small town also proud of its fireworks display. One July 4, everything was socked in with fog; you could hardly see the person next to you. Before the big show began, two small boys, recently adopted from another country, ran through the crowd, sparklers in hand, shrieking wildly, celebrating their newfound lives with complete abandon.

What if we all celebrated our freedom with complete abandon? Sounds great.

But pretty soon, I think, things would become chaotic. Our ability to shriek wildly and run about would result in some wild stampedes. We’d soon realize we needed to temper ourselves a bit, that to preserve our own freedom, we needed to make sure we didn’t run into others.

We’d have to start to watch out for each other while we had a good time.

This to me is the true miracle of American freedom, that we can be free as individuals, and still take care of each other. That we can give up a little of that complete abandon to lend a hand to others.

We as Americans should not – cannot – be afraid to give freedom to others, because we know it only increases our own. We can each give a little to help others reap huge benefits. We pay for highway maintenance and better schools and safer food because it benefits everyone.

If we choose to withdraw from this obligation to yield a bit of our own freedom to contribute to the greater good, we begin to lose that freedom. We become so preoccupied with protecting what’s “ours” – my money, my land, mine, mine, mine – that we fence in ourselves. We are too busy making sure no one takes what’s “ours” that we can no longer enjoy it.

Since our nation was founded, its most significant work has been about extending the freedoms on which it was founded, whether by rushing to the aid of other countries or by crafting legislation that opens new doors for the disenfranchised.

I celebrate that heritage.

Chris Madsen, a software developer and writer who moved to Olympia six years ago from Maine, is a member of The Olympian’s Board of Contributors. She can be reached at cetmadsen@gmail.com.

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