We all experience different levels of freedom in our lives. Obligations and commitments constrain most of us. Economic problems hold others back. Education and opportunity are not equal. We are not equally free.
It would do us well to remember that the Declaration of Independence was not an assertion of the individual’s right to freedom, but of the collective’s right. After describing the offenses of the king, it is declared:
We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.
The Declaration does not declare independence for the individual. Instead it enumerates the individual’s endowed rights as including “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is our right to pursue happiness within the constraints imposed by the collective will, determined by our social institutions. Those institutions include government, cultural norms, religious expectations, and others.
Liberty, one of the listed unalienable rights, is not independence. Though we may be largely free from the authority of others, we still depend on them. On July 3, 2009 I submitted my letter of resignation to my employer. I still think of that as my personal independence day. But while I am free of work obligations, I am no more independent now than I was before resigning.
We are not independent as individuals, nor can we be. Even the most alone of us are connected to the whole in myriad ways. I believe we are best when we recognize that connection. Martin Luther King, Jr. said it this way:
Strangely enough I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way the world is made; I didn’t make it that way, but it’s like that. And John Donne recorded it years ago and placed it in graphic terms: ‘No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.’ And then he goes on toward the end to say: ‘Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind. Therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’ Only by discovering this are we able to master the breadth of life.
We are interdependent by design. Kelly Witchen writes about “shameless reliance” for the site onbeing.org. She describes the V-formations of flying birds and says, “We must learn what the birds already know: Admitting you can’t do it alone, and leaning on those around you is not a weakness — it’s restoration.”
Even the last sentence of the Declaration of Independence affirms this mutual reliance:
And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
When we recognize our dependence, as well as that of those around us, it may be easier to both ask for help and extend a hand. If we could celebrate our need for others rather than see it as weakness, we might treat them with a higher level of empathy and civility.
This Independence Day, commemorate the independence of these United States from the control of a monarch. Likewise recognize the dependence each of us has on the other, for food, health, and safety, for work and play, for support and defense. No one stands alone, and for that we should celebrate.