The Burden and Boundaries of Freedom
Photo by Chansereypich Seng
The fourth of July weekend is historically a time of barbeques, pool noodles, fireworks, and reflection. For many, this annual holiday feels like the true start of the summer season, and it provides an opportunity to rejoice in the freedoms that uniquely belong to citizens of this country. This year, under the shadow of COVID-19, the meaning of freedom is even more urgent.
Freedom might be defined as the right to act, speak, or think any way one wants without hindrance or restraint. The pursuit of this paradigm has led to countless wars and uprisings around the globe, but is it an accurate reflection of what it means to “live in a free country?”
Over the last few months, numerous reputable health experts have begged the public to wear masks when outside, wash our hands frequently, and maintain physical distance. This simple, inexpensive recipe saves lives. Period.
Despite this fact, and the evidence that supports it, large numbers of people have adopted the attitude that wearing a mask in public is a violation of their liberty. With so many battlefields to stand on in 2020, I am shocked that this is the issue they have chosen to magnify; and as a high-risk individual who would like to live to see 40, I take exception to their views.
It is true, we live in a country designed to protect the diverse tapestry of its citizens, but the suggestion or fervent declaration that those freedoms represent carte blanche autonomy is flawed. Our freedom does not afford us the right to ignore traffic laws; drive while under the influence of drugs and alcohol; and we regularly adhere to health code standards such as “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Service.” The freedoms that millions of individuals have fought for do not include the right to rape, murder, molest children, swindle investors, or enslave another human being. In other words, from the mundane to the catastrophic, freedom comes with boundaries.
COVID-19 is a merciless adversary with indiscriminate tastes. This virus does not care about our tax bracket, religious practices, or voting preferences. COVID-19 is operating under the authority of absolute freedom. Our only defense against this foe is to rebel against any inclination to mimic its attributes. We cannot abandon practices that will save lives in favor of the same mentality that governs a rebellious child. In other words, “when I’m an adult, no one will tell me what to do” is not acceptable.
Every day someone tells us what to do or sets boundaries for us. This unavoidable reality is not a violation of our freedom. In many cases, those restrictions protect our right to live healthy, productive lives.
The mandate to wear a mask while in public is not an assault on the foundations of democracy. Nevertheless, the nightly news is peppered with individuals who have a visceral reaction to covering their faces during a pandemic. It is like they believe their compliance with public safety standards leads us one step closer to Totalitarianism. I do not have an easy answer for what is motivating their fear, and it would be unjust to assume that the root of one person’s resistance aligns with the person next to them.
The point is this—we are all granted many individual freedoms, but those rights come with the burden of responsibility. First, we must use our liberty to protect each other from injustice, cruelty, and yes, even from the impact of this virus. Second, none of our actions exists in a vacuum. The freedom we enjoy demands the acknowledgment that our free will does not give us the power to supplant the rights and safety of others. By extension, our freedom comes attached to the certainty that there is always someone being influenced by our choices. We must live up to that burden of responsibility by building a foundation for community and compassion. We cannot forfeit the survival of others in order to promote the inhibitions of indifference and belligerence.
Parents, your children are watching you.
Celebrities, your fans are watching you.
Politicians, everyone is watching you.
No matter our position or title in life, what we do with the podium we are given indicates our grasp and appreciation for the freedoms extended to us under the law and inherent human rights. Freedom does not mean we can be cavalier with other people’s trust and quality of life. When we conduct ourselves in a way that prioritizes our preferences over someone else’s survival, we run the risk of becoming the very thing we scorn.
For me, the reasoning is simple:
I would rather wear a mask than a ventilator.
I would rather keep my distance in public than force my loved ones to die alone in a hospital bed.
I would rather follow CDC guidelines than cost someone their ability to feed their families because of lost wages and business closures.
Each day since I learned about this virus, I have used my freedom to choose you by wearing a mask and keeping my distance. I hope this weekend and beyond, you’ll choose me too.