This past weekend, millions of Americans celebrated the 4th of July. The holiday, often referred to as America’s birthday, is usually filled with cookouts, fireworks and flags, all in the name of celebrating freedom. Because America is founded on the idea of freedom.
Freedom is so ingrained in America’s DNA that it’s woven into our very laws as a country. In fact, in the first amendment of the Constitution alone, all American citizens are guaranteed the freedom to practice their religion, to speak or write their opinions, to assemble in protest, and to ask the government to do (or not do) something.
And that’s just ONE amendment!
The idea of freedom isn’t anything new; in fact, it’s been present in humanity since the beginning of time. We’ve always enjoyed the ability to be free creatures, even before things like Constitutions and laws existed. In fact, there is tremendous freedom to be had for any person in any place on the earth. This freedom is found in our ability to choose.
I’ve often said that while we can’t choose what happens to us, we can choose how we respond to what happens to us. I recently came across a quote from Viktor Frankl that gets to the heart of the matter:
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Frankl, a Holocaust survivor who would go on to become a prominent psychologist, knew firsthand the value of the freedom to choose. While a prisoner of the Nazis, Frankl and his family found a way to rise above the brutality and horror by exercising the one freedom that could never be taken from them. No matter what happened, Frankl kept himself free in the only way any of us really can – by choosing how he responded to his circumstances.
I could make a long list of the freedoms available to Frankl, and really anyone. But I’ll narrow it down to five that I think are the most crucial to living a life that’s truly free.
1. Choosing Your Attitude
Have you ever woken up with a bad attitude? Ever ask yourself how it got there? Of course not! We know – though we don’t like to admit – that our attitude is our choice. You are free to choose how you react to the pressures of life, and sadly, some people choose poorly. People who choose to allow others to dictate how they respond to circumstances surrender their greatest freedom.
We need not put ourselves at the mercy of someone else’s attitudes, actions, and agendas. While you may not always be able to overcome difficult circumstances or change the situations you face, you can exercise your freedom to tackle them with an attitude – like positivity or abundance – that makes things just a little bit easier.
2. Practicing Self-Leadership
There is an old picture from Nazi Germany of a crowd raising its hands in salute to the Reich, but in the middle of the photo is one older man with his arms folded across his chest. It is a powerful image because it illustrates so much of what it means to lead yourself. Even when the rest of the world leads one way, you still have the freedom to lead yourself.
And yet, of all the freedoms we have, this is the most difficult to exercise. After all, the hardest person to lead is always yourself! That’s because leading yourself means doing what you know is right even when it’s hard. It’s developing and exercising internal motivation, instead of relying on motivation from other people. But when you learn to lead yourself, you’re exercising a fundamental freedom that enables you to go in the direction that you choose and to achieve the goals that you set for yourself. Self-leadership takes good intentions and turns them into good actions that have the potential to benefit you and those around you.
3. Taking Steps of Growth
Personal growth is not automatic. We take for granted that we, by virtue of being human, will simply grow and develop over time. After all, we’ve all grown physically from childhood to adulthood, without any real effort. But personal growth is very different from physical growth. Without purposeful steps to promote this kind of growth, it simply doesn’t occur.
The good news is that you have the freedom to choose to grow, and it’s as simple as picking up a book, or asking good questions of other people. It’s being curious and teachable. You don’t have to go back to school to get a degree (though you certainly can!); you simply have to look at life as a series of growth opportunities, and make choices that move you forward from one to the other.
4. Learning from Failure
Benjamin Franklin once said that there were only two certainties in life: death and taxes. I’d like to add a third certainty – failure. Everyone fails. Even people who try to avoid failure fail at not failing! It’s just a part of life. But while everyone fails, not everyone learns from failure.
You see, each failure has lessons to teach us, if we’re willing to look for them. We are free to ignore those lessons to our own peril, but we are just as free to reflect on our failures and extract wisdom from them. We have the freedom to re-write the story of our failure by pulling out valuable lessons that help us grow and improve in life.
Or, to put it another way, we have the freedom to fail forward!
5. Making a positive difference
This freedom is perhaps the most under-valued of them all. Over the past year I’ve spent a lot of time talking to people about their ability to make a difference in the world. I’ve sat down with people at all levels of influence and poured into them my belief that everyone can be a catalyst to transform their community, their country, and even the world. And while the process of transformation isn’t quick, it is easy to begin: all it takes is living each day in a way that adds value to others.
We each have the capacity and the freedom to make a difference. In fact, I believe you have the capacity to change someone’s world today – and you might not even realize it when it happens. Maybe the word of encouragement you offer or the cup of coffee you buy will seem insignificant to you, but you have no idea how much it might mean to the person who receives your kindness.
You are free to give generously, speak kindly, and bring hope to those around you. Start in your home and your workplace, but move it beyond those spheres. Exercise your freedom at the grocery store, the library, at a local restaurant. Look for opportunities to be a light in your world.
The freedoms we have in America are worthy of celebration. They are the reason this country has been a beacon to people from all over the globe for over 200 years. But if we’re not intentional about exercising our freedoms, we can be prisoners even in a country where everyone is free. That’s why I love this quote from poet John Donne: “Be thine own palace, or the world’s thy jail.”
My friend, you have tremendous freedom, given to you by God, to live a life that makes a difference in the world. You have a purpose you’re meant to fulfill, and you’ve been given the skills and strengths necessary to achieve so much more than you can imagine. I want you to understand that the limitations that you feel, the limits that culture or doubt would place on you, do not take away your freedom to be who you’re meant to be.
You are free not just because you live in a country that offers freedom – no matter where you live, no matter who you are, you are free. Free to choose your attitude, free to choose to make a difference, free to change the course of your life for the better.