In my home town of tiny St. Stephen, in Berkeley County on the western side of the Francis Marion Forest, there was a popular saying, a back-handed compliment wrapped in admonition.
“That boy’s free ‘til he’s fool.”
It was usually directed at a teenager who had the audacity to not solely focus on the serious, the teenager (and sometimes adult) who used his free time to make mischief – or just to enjoy life – instead of building another house or pulling more tobacco or spending more time doing homework.
In other words, you knew you were free when you had time to waste on trivial matters.
According to that rationale, America hasn’t been freer, maybe ever, despite persistent claims otherwise. We’re so free we make headlines for sending marriage proposals and a modeling contract to a man named Jeremy Meeks, who has an extensive criminal record and is in jail pending a $1 million bond – because he’s attractive in a mug shot that accompanied his latest arrest on seven felony charges.
We are so free that every time something doesn’t go our way politically, we scream tyranny, no matter if it is a debate about a better background checks system for gun ownership, how best to deliver health care to the poorest among us or the best way to educate our kids.
We are so free we turn cat videos into job creators.
We are so free we speak with disdain about disagreeable decisions made by the Supreme Court, the president, Congress and local elected officials – then dutifully follow the laws and example they set.
When they get along, we get along. When they fight and call each other nasty names, so do we. We are so free we turn people into wealthy celebrities for producing “private” sex tapes and making public fools of themselves on the misnamed reality TV circuit.
Our willingness to squander that freedom proves just how much of it we have.
I don’t know if that was the intent of the Founding Fathers when they gave us the Declaration of Independence 238 years ago this week and, frankly, it doesn’t much matter, for we are the current captains of the ship called America.
That’s the thing about freedom, it gets defined, and redefined, by those who have it, no matter how they acquired it.
And America, like that unruly teenage boy, may seem to squander it but also often uses it for good. We have wealthy people who inherited money, and others who earned it, giving to causes they believe in, even when their freedom means they don’t have to.
We have poor Americans who find time after working multiple low-wage jobs to volunteer at the local shelter or soup kitchen because their vision of freedom means helping others even when you can barely help yourself.
We have politicians – yes, politicians – who sacrifice careers and reputations to take hard stances to improve situations over which they have been given stewardship.
Young men and women use their freedom to volunteer for the armed services in droves every year, despite knowing that the country has been involved in bloody wars since 2003.
Others jump onto railroad tracks to save others from oncoming metro trains. And there are people who came to fame via sex tape and reality TV who have been spending their lives since making a difference in their communities or in the lives of sick children.
Our brand of freedom and how we use it is flawed, because we are flawed. That can make us cynical and forgetful of the gift we’ve been given.
We should be grateful that it provides us the opportunity to mess up – then make things right again.
There is no greater freedom.
Contact Issac Bailey at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @TSN_IssacBailey