Soon we’ll be celebrating Independence Day — complete with fireworks, picnics, parades and fabulous sales at every car lot and furniture store.
At some point — likely at several points — you will encounter a popular contemporary expression: “Freedom isn’t free.”
Mostly, it’s used in the context of thanking U.S. military personnel, past and present, for their service to our country. As Abraham Lincoln said a few months after the bloody and decisive battle of Gettysburg: “It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.”
After years of interviewing veterans, I’ve learned many things. One of them is the simple fact a service member doesn’t always agree with why his or her nation gets involved in a conflict. They may not like the way military and civilian leaders prosecute the war. Yet they answer the call. They do the jobs they were trained to do, sometimes risking and sometimes losing their lives.
That personifies the word “service” to me — doing something you’d maybe rather not do, but doing it because it’s the right thing to do by your country. I am grateful for every last one of those men and women and their families.
But the words “Freedom isn’t free” don’t stop there. They also apply to you and me every day.
There’s another connotation that does not slip so neatly into patriotic speeches, Facebook posts, T-shirt designs and sale ads. Freedom requires a bit of sacrifice from all of us, not just from those who serve in the military. And it can be messy business.
That’s because one person’s freedom is another person’s tolerance. If I don’t like what you’re doing, but you have a constitutional right to do it, I bite my tongue. I honor your right to say and do what you believe and to pursue your definition of happiness. Literally and figuratively, biting one’s tongue hurts!
Garrison Keillor once observed the most un-American thing a person can say is: “You can’t say that.”
Apart from slander or obscenity, you can say what you want to say, even if it isn’t easy for me to hear. Honoring that right is how those of us who are not in uniform defend our freedoms every day.
Self-restraint in order to give someone else space to exercise his or her rights is rarely painless. It may make your ears burn. It may make the veins bulge on the side of your head. It may raise your blood pressure. You may feel exasperated. You may need to hit golf balls or pull weeds in the garden or deliver a counterpoint in a speech to the bathroom mirror to work off some of the stress.
It’s not the same as risking our lives on the battlefield, but it’s the price we’re called to pay. Do it and you understand freedom most certainly is not free. It’s not easy. It’s not neat and clean. It’s often uncomfortable.
If you are not a man or woman in uniform, what have you done lately to honor and protect these freedoms? Have you listened respectfully to someone you don’t agree with? (Painful though it may be?) Have you restrained from disparaging someone for what they believe?
All that’s important because democracy is about more than taking one side or the other. It’s about making a third way, about compromise, about building a road that doesn’t veer right or left, but instead leads forward. That sort of public dialogue and government action seem increasingly rare. When a party or a politician says, “It’s my way or the highway,” that sounds more like a dictatorship than a free country.
Sad, because when it comes right down to it, that spirit of “E Pluribus Unum” — “Out of Many, One” — is the genius and the lifeblood of the nation whose birthday we celebrate in a few days. It’s what makes America different from many other places in the world.
So, this Fourth of July, feel free to post or shout-out the phrase “Freedom isn’t free” to honor the sacrifices of those who have founded and preserved this amazing country.
Then honor them further by applying those words to how we live our lives and how we treat our fellow citizens every day.
Contact John Gladden at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @thatjohngladden.