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What does freedom mean?

I grew up reciting the Pledge of Allegiance with my hand over my heart and singing America with my classmates at the start of every school day. The Pledge ends “…one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” And the song includes little phrases about our country such as “sweet land of liberty” and “let freedom ring.”

We have symbols for freedom: an eagle, the Liberty Bell, the Declaration of Independence, the Fourth of July, and many others. Much of our country has been embroiled in debate the past few years over our flag: some feel the flag is a symbol of freedom to be honored with respect, and others feel the flag is a symbol of freedom to be enacted in protest.

The symbols of freedom are all around us. I do wonder sometimes if we take these symbols for granted. And maybe we start to forget the liberty they symbolize.

What does it mean to be a free person? What does it mean to be a free country? Veterans Day makes me think about these questions. Many people who love freedom and love our country see our military as a symbol of American values like liberty. But anyone who has served in the military is well aware that military service involves giving up personal freedom. Members of our military voluntarily choose to restrict themselves in order to serve the greater good of the military and our nation.

How do Americans give up freedom when they join the military? We give up our right to free speech, for one. American soldiers are supposed to serve our nation, and avoid using their uniform to promote particular political positions. We no longer have the right to worship just like any other citizen. The military does its best to allow for freedom of worship, but it is subject to the needs of the military and the mission at hand. When we are deployed, we lose many of our freedoms such as what we want to eat, what we want to do with our time, where we want to go, and who we want to be in communication with.

This Veterans Day I was just reflecting on whether we would be a better country if more of us were willing to give up our personal freedom for the good of all. Maybe living in a free country involves liberty, and maybe sometimes we should use our liberty to do good for others. What seems obvious to me is that our symbols of freedom can become hollowed out and meaningless, if we forget what they mean. I hope you are able to spend a little bit of time this week thinking about what liberty means and what freedom is. Are you a free person? How are you free? How are you using your freedom?

This column is also available in this week’s edition of The Shelton Clipper, which serves Gibbon, Shelton, Wood River, Alda, and Cairo.

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