Friday, July 3, 2009

The Responsibility of Freedom: A July 4th Essay

As we celebrate our nation's birthday, I'm reminded of the debate I often used to have with my grandfather over rights v. responsibility. Perhaps it was because he was an immigrant ~ or maybe it was his Victorian England upbringing ~ regardless, my grandfather, my grandmother, and my baby mother came to America in search of freedom and opportunity ~ mostly, the freedom to break free from a British social caste where birth status determined one's social status for life.

When I was young, I was passionate about protecting everyone's 'rights,' and expressed great tolerance towards letting others 'do their own thing.'

Now that I am a grandparent myself, I find that we often overlook what my grandfather rightly called our responsibility of freedom ~ the duty we have to both protect our American way of life (whether through military service or civilian community activism) by acting responsibility as individuals and through collective responsibility towards others.

This year's Independence Day brings, I think, a time for renewed reflection about not only how and why we became a nation of freedom but also how the challenges of responsibility we now face will determine whether our grandchildren know this special place where we can be whomever we want to be, regardless of race, creed, national origin, or sex.

As we collectively work our way through a major economic readjustment, it seems to me that these stressful lean times give us the opportunity to return to our roots ~ to a land of freedom that comes from hard work and individual responsibility, rather than through a sense of entitlement. This transformation will be very difficult, though, since most Americans have lived in an entitlement society for so long that our collective memory is faint in recalling the days of sacrifice and sharing that helped build not only a strong nation but also the Golden State of California.

I see this challenge often through my river restoration work, where 'good' people thoughtlessly toss trash on the ground (which ends up in our waterways) thinking that 'someone' else will pick it up ~ usually an employee paid for by tax dollars. This 'they' mentality has done much, in my opinion, to erode the values of America.

When I look at the environmental damage WE have done, the fraudulent financial system WE have propped up, and the delegation of community services that WE think government should take care of, I wonder if we still possess the collective will to return to a nation whose strength was American made ~ built on the pledging of our 'lives, fortunes and sacred honor.'

No time in my life have I witnessed such a pivotal era, where we stand at either the beginning of a new union or start of a final decline that has befallen other great civilizations.

In my humble opinion, this new American era cannot begin until we stop talking and fighting over 'my rights' and start digging in and contributing to 'my responsibilities.'

As Doris 'Granny D' Haddock so eloquently stated in her 93rd birthday speech:

"Aren't we privileged to live in a time when everything is at stake, and when our efforts make a difference in the eternal contest between the forces of light and shadow, between togetherness and division, between justice and exploitation? Oh, be joyful that you are a warrior in this great time! "Will we rise to this battle? If so, we cannot lose, for rising up to it is our victory . . . If we represent love in the world, you see, we have already won."

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