Independence Day in America signifies a day of release from tyranny and injustice, from the arbitrary uses of power by the government, from random acts that subjugate and oppress people. In the old world of seventeenth century Britain, from which the first settlers to America fled, people were imprisoned for trifles, people starved, the strong oppressed the weak, and life, in the words of Thomas Hobbes was quite literally “nasty, brutish, and short.”
There are still countries today whose citizens live in that kind of world, where each day is a struggle, people go hungry, water is scarce, and violence is an everyday occurrence. There are places, too, here in the United States where this is the rule, not the exception. Americans live in a country where everyone may be free, but the quality of that life remains nasty, brutish, and short. In the world, there are many still in these (metaphorical) chains.
Independence in America means the political right to pursue our human rights of life, liberty, and happiness. The political ideal has formed a society based on these principles. Americans have the great fortune of living in a country where the civil structure of society promotes life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The civil structure promotes this. The civil structure is not the government, it is not the laws, it is not the debates or the representatives or the President or the Supreme Court. It is me and it is you. We are the civil structure of the United States—all of us, together.
But sometimes it can be difficult to support someone else’s inalienable human rights: “What happens when their liberty interferes with my own?” “What if they advance further, faster than I do?” “What if their success means my failure?” Keeping up with the Joneses means knocking them down; advancing at work means subverting a colleague; getting a date means backstabbing your best friend. The tendency to inhibit someone else, hold someone down, cut someone off, sometimes seems like a matter of personal survival, derived from one’s own desire for life.
This is an old question—how do people balance their own rights, survival, even success, over and against everyone else’s?
In a civil society such as ours, predicated on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we have a choice. Either we support a society that supports all our rights, or we regress to a society in which everyone’s right is restrained. With each act we take, each word we speak to each other, we make that choice. We either support and encourage life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or choose a life that is nasty and brutish.
Of course we do not see the results of our choices immediately, but each choice adds to the whole of society—and together we are moving that society towards whatever-it-will-become. Add one pebble to the scale on the side of “nasty and brutish” enough times and the scale will tip that direction.
In a very real sense, this is why kindness matters. Disrespect disrupts peace; kindness cultivates peace. This is why respect matters. This is why honoring each other’s choices matters. Without these things in daily life, we degrade the very fabric of a society built on an ideal of personal freedom. With every rude act, with every impolite gesture, with every impatient curse or slap or menacing action we add a pebble to the side of the scale that inhibits another’s life.
People desire deeply their right to live. People deserve a life that is rich and deep and vibrant; that is more than mere survival. Life expands where it is safe to do so; where there is a threat of harm, life contracts, recedes, stays safe, merely survives. We are all constantly contributing either to each other’s expansion or contraction. No one is free when any one behaves in a way that restricts another’s freedom.
Honor and be honored. Respect and be respected. Live and let live. Begin with yourself, within yourself. This is the foundation for a peaceful coexistence, giving life the opportunity to expand and spread its wings.
The first principle of freedom is peace, because without peace there is no life, and without life nothing else really matters.