“Personal freedom.” What exactly does that mean? Given some of the current national inconsistencies (e.g., acceptance of decades-long mandates requiring multiple vaccinations to attend school, yet defiance against current vaccine directives), perhaps there’s room for interpretation that can actually facilitate collaboration and wellbeing rather than further division, infection and death…
A little over a week ago on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Former President George W. Bush recalled that horrific day “of trial and grief” and spoke of seeing millions of Americans “instinctively grab for a neighbor’s hand and rally to the cause of one another… At a time when religious bigotry might have flowed freely,” he saw us “reject prejudice and embrace people of Muslim faith... At a time when nativism could have stirred hatred and violence against people perceived as outsiders,” Bush saw Americans reaffirm our welcome to immigrants and refugees… and “at a time when some viewed the rising generation as individualistic and decadent,” he witnessed “young people embrace an ethic of service and rise to selfless action.”
Throughout his poignant observations, the former president repeated that THIS is the nation he knows. He claimed his memories weren’t “mere nostalgia;” they represented “the truest version of ourselves.”
To be completely honest, I’m not certain what kind of nation I observe us to be these days as we continue slogging through a pandemic that’s already claimed over 650,000 American lives. To be sure, there have been and continue to be many moving examples of courage, sacrificial service and unconditional love. Regardless of all the other factors that differentiate us, many have and still work to protect the first of those unalienable rights listed in our Declaration of Independence: “Life.” Our frontline healthcare providers are such inspiring models.
Sadly, a hardened division across America continues to create an ugly, toxic contrast to that acknowledgment of collective identity; and interpretations of personal freedom remain one of the most volatile flashpoints. As much as we might wish or fantasize otherwise, that freedom and the choices arising from it have consequences: At this particular time in history, some choices not only touch others, they endanger them. We don’t and can’t live in a protective bubble on this planet; we all breathe the same air, and currently that air is increasingly filled with a potentially lethal virus from which no one, neither vaccinated nor unvaccinated, is fully protected. The expression “No man is an island” definitely applies here.
In his August 12th update sharing the status of our “struggling” regional healthcare system, San Juan County Health Officer Dr. Frank James stated: “We all need to sacrifice to reduce that strain, even those of us who are vaccinated.”
Sacrifice for the common good… James’s suggestion brings back memories of WWII, when Americans were asked to make numerous significant sacrifices after the bombing of Pearl Harbor; rationing was only one way we contributed to the war effort. During that campaign, Americans didn’t focus on all the inconveniences or disruptions to our preferred way of life. We contributed earnestly, even eagerly in any way we could as an act of patriotism because we recognized “we were all in this together.” We recognized, with pride, that united we would stand (and win the war) or divided we would fall (and lose). That adage feels ominously relevant today, for haven’t many of us been fighting a war against a virulent enemy called COVID-19?
How can Americans reclaim the vision and commitment we displayed during WWII and 9/11? How can those once united states become re-congealed to meet today’s challenges? Once again, Buddhist teaching holds some essential truths that could inspire answers... The word “freedom” shows up frequently in Buddhist teachings and thought. It isn’t defined by the absence of restraints and difficulties or by the experience of getting what we want. Buddhism maintains that our basic freedom comes from how we choose to respond to what life brings. No matter what unfolds, we always have a choice: we can react mindlessly with often unhealthy, limiting patterns, or we can cultivate the ability to respond mindfully to meet the moment in ways that reflect our values and priorities.
Grasping and honoring our interconnection with all life is a key Buddhist tenet just as it is in Native American teaching. Embracing that truth encourages us to extend greater compassion to all beings, especially as we recognize our mutual suffering. No, it’s not easy. No, we don’t always agree with all beings or with what life brings. But with time and commitment, such mindful choices can create powerful rewards for ourselves and others, suggested by this formula from His Holiness the Dalai Lama:
“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion; and if you want yourself to be happy, practice compassion.”
It seems to me that, regardless of where the dial falls on the subject of personal freedom, most citizens are motivated by the very same emotion these days: fear. Fear of losing something we hold precious, whether it’s liberty, physical safety and well-being, or any of the shades in between. What if that vulnerable common experience became the pivot point from which we could move toward reconnection and commitment to a common goal? What if we tried Rumi’s approach?
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I'll meet you there…” Americans share the same glorious homeland. Regardless of our age, gender, race, education, social, sexual, spiritual or political affiliation, each of us needs to feel seen, heard and honored. What if, instead of harboring ill will or hurling insults and even blows, we risked approaching a fellow citizen with whom we disagreed on a topic like personal freedom, and invited them to join us in a mutually respectful dialogue of sharing perspectives? No “wrongdoing” or “rightdoing;” no agenda to persuade or win. Simply to exchange our individual viewpoints with the goal of understanding one another’s beliefs and honoring each of our right to have them. This kind of communication can create mirrors that reflect our true identity: not that of enemy, but of fellow human being. And once we recognize each other, additional areas of commonality become easier to identify and then all sorts of possibilities have a chance of being born.
I’ll close with one final piece of ancient (Chinese) wisdom. May it stir your heart and invite you to ponder being part of beautiful solutions…
A man once asked to visit Heaven and Hell, and his wish was granted. When he reached the first destination, Hell, he was amazed to see a huge banquet table overflowing with all sorts of mouth-watering foods. Yet everyone seated at the table looked miserable; in fact, at closer inspection, he discovered they were all starving! The residents each had chopsticks in their hands, but since each pair was an unwieldy 3-feet long, the emaciated group could not carry the food to their mouths. What a hell, indeed, to have abundance so near yet be unable to savor or benefit from it!
Next, the man was transported to Heaven. Again, he observed a massive banquet table spilling over with unlimited culinary delights. But these diners looked very different from the ones in Hell, even though they held the same 3-foot-long chopsticks in their hands. As they carried on in laughter and enjoyment, the visitor ventured closer, curious to discover how these diners managed to enjoy a different outcome with seemingly the same conditions. He smiled as he observed their secret: The residents of Heaven had learned to experience the bounty before them… by using their yard-long chopsticks… to feed each other.
May I, we & all beings recognize our mutual humanity and interdependence, & may we join together with compassion to create solutions to the challenges we currently face.
Deb Langhans has worked in the wellness field as a coach/counselor, writer & speaker for over 25 years. She currently owns & operates Journeys to Healing on San Juan Island where she offers "wholistic" life coaching, mindfulness & grief recovery coaching, reflexology, Inner Journey Collage© & a developing line of products designed to encourage healthy habits.
Most services are available in Deb's studio or via phone or Zoom. For more information or scheduling, please go to www.journeystohealing.com (website). firstname.lastname@example.org (email), or 360.317.4526 (texts preferred).