Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms –
to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
– Viktor E. Frankl
Liberty + Responsibility = Freedom
The American notion of having an inalienable right to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ is based upon a poor, if not entirely incorrect, understanding of that word. The word inalienable means ‘incapable of being alienated, surrendered, or transferred.’ It cannot be given to another, or taken away by another. That being said then, your life is not an inalienable right. Your life is both given to you, and it is going to be taken away from you. You don’t know when or how, but you can be certain your life, and everything associated with that life, will be taken away from you; or, if you prefer, you will be taken away from it. So, the notion of having an inalienable right to life is false. You have been given the gift of life, a temporal life, a mortal life, a short life. What you do with that life is up to you, and therein lies the notion of ‘liberty’ which also is not inalienable. If liberty were inalienable, nobody would be imprisoned, or enslaved, because if it were inalienable, it could not be given or taken away. But, in fact, it can be, and often is, given and taken away.
Liberty is the possibility, the potentiality, of responsibility and, as such, can be considered a gift. Responsibility here is not meant as something you ‘should’ do according to some set of external standards imposed upon you by the conventional norms of the day. Responsibility is your ability to respond to life as it is, more so than the way you think it is. It is the ability to confront and interact with life, without distortions based on biases and prejudices, social programming and learned automatic perceptions and interpretations of situations and events. The more liberty you have, the more response-ability you have. With more response-ability you have, the more capable you are of being competent in any given situation for to be resposne-able is to be liberated from a set of programmed scripts to which you have been indoctrinated and beholden. In any given situation, you can respond with any number of behaviors: kindness, curtness, anger, confusion, violence, compassion, curiosity and so many other behavioral manifestations of a liberated mind. A liberated mind is a responsive mind, fluid and flexible.
Without an active ability to respond free from pre-programmed scripts, which are unconscious reactions to stimuli or ‘triggers,’ one is no more than an automated robot, ‘wired’ to react to the multivarious stimuli of life in rigid set ways. Liberty without response-ability is enslavement to programming; it is a form of bondage, of imprisonment or slavery. Liberty with response-ability is freedom. If you want to be free, you need to have abilities to respond beyond the ways in which you have been programmed to react, beyond the robotic automation of thought and behavior. Automatic thought, and subsequent emotion and decisions making, is the antithesis of liberty. Based on this understanding, the equation liberty + responsibility = freedom is apt and at the basis for the notion of having a Statue of Responsibility to balance the Statue of Liberty. It has been said that freedom without responsibility is called ‘adolescence.’ Liberty with responsibility is maturity. If growing up means anything, it is about becoming mature which can mean the authentic experience of genuine freedom.
And, of course, let us not forget the American ethos of ‘pursuit of happiness’ which is also not inalienable, because both life and liberty, each required for the pursuit of happiness, can be taken away. Just about everything you believe is an inalienable right is not for it can be taken away. What cannot be taken away, while living, is our capacity to choose how we respond to life, which is our liberty. So, perhaps our inalienable right is, in a word, Choice. We can choose to respond, and in so choosing, exercise our liberty, and experience genuine, authentic freedom. So, perhaps the ethos of America can become: ‘We hold this truth to be self evident, that all peoples are created with the potential to exercise the power of Choice.’