Hard to believe a year ago this July 4th weekend, I was driving through the Smoky Mountains listening to Garrison Keillor’s final show of A Prairie Home Companion, broadcast live from the Hollywood Bowl. President Obama called in to give Keillor a well-deserved shout-out for his forty-two years (!) of story-telling that has, as Obama put it, “made us all a little more humane.”
Barack Obama kept trying to focus the conversation on Keillor, Keillor kept turning it back to Obama. Keillor asked, “What are you looking forward to when you’re out of office?”
Obama laughed, “Getting in a car and going for a drive without the Secret Service.”
Exactly. Getting in a car and going where we want, when we want, with whom we want is the epitome of freedom. Yet many of us take it for granted.
As Abraham Maslow pointed out in his Hierarchy of Needs, “Satisfied needs are no longer motivators.”
In other words, once we have food, water, safety, freedom; we tend to overlook them. We don’t miss or appreciate them until they are challenged, until we lose them.
Freedom to is far too precious to take for granted.
This was brought home by an incident that happened years ago during a Christmas holiday vacation in California’s Yosemite Valley.
We were staying at a family lodge that featured snowshoeing and sledding. We lived in Maui at the time, so playing in the snow was a big draw for Tom and Andrew. What we hadn’t counted on was a blizzard that kept us inside. No worries, there was ping pong so we were happy campers.
One night during dinner, the manager confided he was concerned about a couple who were supposed to check in that day but still hadn’t arrived. This was before cell phones so the manager didn’t know if they’d gotten lost or what.
Suddenly, the door blew open and in walked the couple. We gathered round to find out what had happened.
Yes, they’d gotten lost, but here’s the part that made a lasting impression on me ... they hadn't panicked because they were in the United States.
They said they had grown up in Russia. If they wanted to travel internally, they had to give authorities their itinerary. If they didn’t arrive at each checkpoint by a certain time, they came under suspicion and could be interrogated, even arrested. The couple told us they hadn't worried about losing their way to the lodge because they were in America, they had enough food, water and blankets, and they knew they’d be safe until someone rescued them. At least they didn’t have to worry about being tossed in jail.
Their story had an enduring impact on me. I promised to never again take my freedom of movement for granted.
I was reminded of this vow, in an unexpected way, a week after hearing Obama reveal how much he was looking forward to his regained freedom of movement.
I was was navigating some dark steps in a hotel parking lot and took what I thought was the last step, except it wasn't. I fell head-first and crashed into a car, ribs-first.
Ouch! I sat there, stunned in a state of shock. I decided to get up and “walk it off.” That had always been my strategy. If I was playing tennis and twisted my ankle, I found that if I sat down, that injury set in. But if I walked around, my body would somehow, miraculously, heal itself.
So, I walked around until I felt like I was “myself” again. I was okay until the next morning when I couldn’t get out of bed. My whole side ached. Any sudden movement brought a gasp of pain.
I googled my symptoms and self-diagnosed that I had bruised or cracked ribs. (Side note: Yes, I know doctors hate it when we self-diagnose via the internet.)
WEB-MD said that if I did go to the ER, they’d probably take x-rays to see if I was in danger of puncturing a lung, but otherwise they wouldn’t even “tape me up,” as physicians now feel that's an outdated practice that hurts more than it helps. They would, maybe, give me pain meds and advise me to “take it easy” and the ribs would eventually knit on their own.
Hmm. I was flying to Hawaii that day. Perhaps this was naive, but I decided I could "take it easy" in the islands. As long as I sat still or walked without swinging my arms, it didn't hurt too much. It was only when I needed to bend, turn my torso or lift anything (e.g., a carry-on suitcase) that my body quickly reminded me, "DON'T do that!"
I arrived safe (but not so sound) and checked into the beautiful Andaz Resort and Spa, a truly lovely hotel but it is modern which means everything is low. Low beds. Low couches. Low chairs. I remember looking at the bed and wondering how I was ever going to get in it, much less out of it.
I thought, “I know. I’ll go for a walk on the beach path.” I had spent hundreds of happy hours on that path with friends and family when we lived in the area and while I served as Executive Director of the Maui Writers Conference.
Good idea in theory, not so much in practice. Five minutes into my walk, I knew it was a mistake. The narrow, up, down, winding path was crowded with runners, speed walkers and baby strollers, which meant I was dodging someone or something every other minute. Not an option. I headed back to the hotel, feeling like a wimp.
So, what happened? I became a spectator. The next ten days, I sat and looked at the ocean - and didn’t even go in. I watched people swim, scuba, snuba, paddle-board, body-board, kayak and sail - and didn’t get up from my chair.
And you know what I learned? It is a very slippery slope between being a participant in life vs. a spectator. I’ve been active most my life, but here I was sitting on the sidelines watching, not doing.
Thank heaven my ribs healed and I was able to get out of inertia and back in motion. I was once again able to actively appreciate and enjoy my freedom of movement.
How about you? Is freedom a satisfied need? Are you taking it for granted - or using it before you lose it?
Moshe Dayan said, “Freedom is the oxygen of the soul.”
Freedom is more than that. Freedom in all its many forms - freedom from fear, freedom of speech, freedom to work for a living, freedom to pursue happiness, freedom of movement - is one of the great blessings of our life.
John F. Kennedy said, “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”
This July 4th weekend, may we not just SAY we appreciate our freedom (s), may we get outside and SHOW we understand what a gift it is to go where we please, do what we please, say what we please, when we please, with whom we please.