This month our country celebrates freedom. The great and wise patriot, Erma Bombeck, once said, “You have to love a nation that celebrates its independence every July 4th, not with a parade of guns, tanks, and soldiers who file by the White House in a show of strength and muscle, but with family picnics where kids throw Frisbees, the potato salad gets iffy, and the flies die from happiness. You may think you have overeaten, but it is patriotism.”
From the broad perspective of society, the word freedom brings to mind civil liberties, human rights, the freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, religious freedom, and so on. But freedom is more than this.
When we narrow the concept of freedom down to the individual, it becomes relative to each one of us. What I feel when I feel freedom might be very different from what you feel when you feel freedom. The feeling of freedom might be to some a feeling that comes with having financial security or flexible time. To another it might mean getting out of a bad relationship or a job where creativity has been stifled, or even out of jail. To one person it might mean retiring and being free to travel, and to a teenager freedom might mean spending the night at a friend’s house.
Take a look at your own feelings with respect to freedom. Put aside political views and concerns about liberty and justice for all, and simply think about your own feeling of freedom. Freedom is a lot like peace. In Ghandi’s words, “We must be the peace that we seek”. Likewise, we must be the freedom we seek. If we’re not being the freedom that’s available to us personally, how can we expect true freedom to be reflected on a grander scale?
Many of us in today’s world feel somewhat helpless with respect to what we can do personally to protect, uphold and expand this nation’s freedoms. So we say things like, “Life just isn’t fair.” And then we internalize and personalize that belief. The fact is you would be right. Life isn’t fair. Nor is it unfair. It just is. What each one of us does with it mentally, emotionally, and actively will determine how free we feel in our own experience of life.
Viktor Frankl exemplified this perspective in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, in which he tells about his experience in a Nazi concentration camp. In September of 1942, at 37 years of age, this young doctor, his new bride, his mother, father, and brother, were arrested and taken to a concentration camp in Bohemia. They were separated, and Dr. Frankl became prisoner number 119,104.
His father died there of starvation. His mother and brother were killed at Auschwitz in 1944. His wife died at Bergen-Belsen, in northern Germany in 1945. Over a period of about three years Dr. Frankl was moved to three different camps.
When he was moved to Auschwitz, – his manuscript that he had sewn into the lining of his coat, entitled The Doctor and the Soul, was discovered and destroyed. In spite of all of this suffering, in his book he reflects upon the irony that he never felt so free as he did during that terrible time. How could that be? All of his freedoms were taken away. He was living in constant threat of disease, torture and death. But in the midst of it all he discovered a depth of freedom inside himself that he had never before experienced. In his words, “The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understand how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved.”
Dr. Frankl began to see throughout his ordeal, that among those given a chance for survival it was those who held on to a vision of the future, whether it be a significant task before them, or a return to their loved ones, that were the most likely to survive.
He finally reconstructed his manuscript and published it. He continued to teach at the University of Vienna until 1990, when he was 85. It’s interesting to note that he was a vigorous mountain climber and earned his airplane pilot’s license when he was 67. He finished his autobiography in 1995, and published his final work in 1997, the same year in which he died on September 2nd at 92 years young.
Viktor Frankl discovered meaning and meaningfulness that takes place in humankind’s attitude toward his or her existence even when restricted by external forces. He came to understand that we are free spirits and that our minds are not bound by anything unless we think they are.
So what does freedom feel like? It feels like having our thoughts flow in a loving, positive way toward all of life. It feels like awe. It feels like a joy that wants to explode beyond the fear of human constraints. It feels like humbleness before the awesome power of Creator’s glory expressed through each one of us. It feels like redesigning, remodeling, and redecorating our minds with beautiful, updated ideas. It feels like wings instead of weights. It feels like enthusiasm. It feels like being loved, loving and lovable all at once.
Dr. Frankl learned that no matter how awful external conditions might be, he still had the freedom of his own thoughts and attitudes. He still had the freedom to choose to see with the eyes of a free spirit. You, too, can choose to see with the eyes of a free spirit. So celebrate freedom with fireworks and barbeque. And if you overeat, consider yourself a patriot!