When Americans celebrate their national birthday, the Fourth of July, it is most likely to take the form of barbecues, family gatherings, trips to the mountains or lakes, fireworks, just lazying in the back yard, or anything else we may choose - rather than some profound reflection on the meaning of the day.
Yet in those choices, we may strike closer to the roots of this special holiday than we realize. For choice is what lies at the heart of the Fourth of July; it's about freedom, the right to pick and choose, to follow dreams.It is instructive that Americans observe the nation's birthday, not with the signing of the Constitution that put the Union together in 1787, but rather with the bold announcement of 1776, declaring themselves independent and free.
A war was fought over that choice, ending in victory for those whose ideal was "unalienable rights," including "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." That concept made America a beacon for people all over the world. They still flock to these shores.
But as Americans choose what they do with the Fourth of July, it would not be amiss to contemplate what choice means, and to share those thoughts with our children. There is an obligation, as John Jay (1745-1829) first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, said, "to teach the rising generation to be free."
First, it should be understood that to be free is not a promise that everything will go well. The Declaration of Independence saw the pursuit of happiness as a right. The pursuit is the right, not happiness itself. Despite what some people seem to think, there is no "right" to be happy; only the right to try.
Being free and making choices are only one side of the equation. Freedom to choose is not license, it is not unrestrained indulgence, it is not abandonment of virtue and responsibility in favor of appetite.
To have the right to choose also carries with it the corresponding burdens of duty, responsibility, commitment. Without them, freedom can turn into a mockery, a selfishness that becomes merely another kind of slavery. The Founding Fathers noted that the government they were building would only work in the hands of a virtuous people.
Having the freedom to choose requires the understanding that every choice has a consequence of some kind - and requires making choices with those consequences in mind.
On this Fourth of July, no matter what we do with it, let's remember why we are able to choose, and why the range of choices is so large. The resulting sense of gratitude will make it all more meaningful.