Did the people of your country have to take a vote on whether or not your right to life, freedom and pursuit of happiness deserved equal protection under the law? When I first heard this question phrased in this way, it was quite a paradigm shift for me. On Independence Day 2016, I wrote a blog post about freedom, which I later reprinted on this website. I was discussing the concept of personal freedom within. Though inner freedom is incredibly important, it’s incomplete. Outer freedom, which can and has been dictated by powerful people throughout history, has a substantial impact on our ability to cultivate inner freedom – and true and authentic freedom can’t be realized until we’re all free.
On this day in 1776 the political founders of the United States declared themselves free from Great Britain’s rule. As with so many human endeavors, the beautiful ideals behind this declaration were muddied by complexities and hypocrisies. The “founding fathers” were a group of predominantly wealthy, white plantation owners and businessmen who wrote about equality among people in our unalienable right to life, liberty, and safety in the pursuit of happiness. In light of the fact that they refer only to men, and the land they colonized was taken from indigenous people (referred to as “merciless Indian Savages” in the document) and built upon by the enslaved, it is clear they were thinking about people like themselves and not truly about all people.
In the book “Liberty and Freedom“, David Hackett Fischer wrote, “What made America free was not any single vision of liberty and freedom, but the interplay of many visions… many of these groups who came over in pursuit of liberty and freedom for themselves often denied it to others.” One of the major waves of people who immigrated and settled here came to escape religious persecution. Though they wanted to practice their chosen religion in their own way, they were largely intolerant of other views. Another major wave consisted of Northern Britains, whose symbol of freedom was a rattlesnake and the slogan “don’t tread on me“. Written in the first person, singular, this slogan did not include the broader humanity.
Benjamin Franklin said, “Freedom is not a gift bestowed upon us by other men, but a right that belongs to us by the laws of God and nature.” Yet white men in the US did indeed treat freedom like a gift to be given and taken away. Non-penal slavery wasn’t abolished until 1865 and the involuntary servitude of inmates is still allowed. The Civil Rights Act wasn’t passed until 1964 (only 56 years ago). In this time, those whose freedom was stolen and then given back as a conditional gift by other men, as well as their descendants, continue to endure inequities in housing, healthcare, education, employment, environment, and criminal justice. To this day, Black Americans live shorter lives, have higher infant and maternal mortality rates, suffer worse health outcomes, earn lower wages and receive fewer benefits, than white Americans.
Though people across the political spectrum cite freedom as a motivating factor for their particular ideologies, it means different things to them. It may be helpful to ask ourselves, is it my freedom I’m fighting for or our freedom? When we are caught up in I, me and mine we forgot our common humanity and the responsibility behind our profound interconnection. Freedom without responsibility is a denial of cause and effect. In order to flourish, we each must balance our own needs and desires with the wellbeing of others and the health of our planet. Even those in power who seem to succeed by climbing on the backs of others reap consequences from their disregard. People of color are the world’s majority, therefore white supremacy isolates white people from most of humanity. Marginalization and oppression waste human potential and energy that could be of shared benefit. Though the disease of racism harms black and brown people most of all, white people will continue to suffer from the corrosive effects of guilt, hatred, fear and hopelessness until we finally have the courage to apply the antidote.
Mindfulness may be one ingredient in such an antidote. When we cultivate the attitudes and practices of mindfulness in a dedicated and sustained manner, we begin to see through the delusions of ignorance, greed, jealousy, fear and hatred that cause us to hold ourselves above, discriminate against, and harm others. We’ve made some slow and painstaking progress, but we still have a long way to go. Until we truly and authentically accept and embody the self-evident truth that all are created equal, we will all continue to suffer together – an important and sobering factor to consider today as we celebrate freedom.