How to Tell If You’re Free

As Americans, our lives revolve around the concept of freedom. It is the basis for our government, our holidays, our over the top news anchors and their scary breaking news. Many people believe the United States is the freest country in the world, and many believe freedom is what makes the United States the greatest country in the world. For all that we talk about it, live in it, exercise it, how many people really understand what freedom is?
The definition isn’t very helpful. According to Webster’s dictionary, freedom means being able to act freely. As Americans, this is a definition we must take for granted. From the time we wake till we go back to sleep, even how and when and where we sleep, is totally up to us. People are so accustomed to acting as they will that any encounter with force or control can meet with resentment, suspicion, and scorn. Children will complain about how parents or teachers ignore their rights because they have to follow a dress code or aren’t allowed to watch a certain movie. Are adults whose lives revolve around a job and whose behavior is determined by their means of income less free than adults who are unemployed and can do whatever they want whenever they want? Of course not, but these are the difficulties that arise when we try to understand freedom.
Another definition of freedom is the escape from imprisonment or slavery. Indeed, I think that this definition becomes the most important definition for our society today. Only by losing freedom can we begin to understand what it meant in the first place. Slavery is alive and well. From the Thai fishing boats that abduct men for years at a time to human trafficking, even today people lose their freedoms and become property of others. People in abusive relationships lose their freedom to controlling spouses. People lose their freedom to incarceration for a number of reasons; some are falsely accused, some are political prisoners, many poor people are convicted of crimes they do as they fight to survive. The United States has the largest prison population in the world, which is a confusing fact for the freest nation in the world. Do we just have more bad people, or is it possible we have more laws to break?
To be owned or incarcerated are terrible ways to learn what freedom really means. For us in this moment, imagining what slavery would be like is as much an abstract challenge as understanding what freedom is. But we can listen to survivors, hear their stories of courage, and know true gratitude for that elusive thing that we have but do not understand.
Addiction is another word for slavery. If we were to listen to the media or the government sponsored anti-drug propaganda, we might believe that all drug addicts die of overdoses soon after they start using whatever poison they’ve gotten themselves into. That of course, is terrible and sad, but it is not the usual outcome for drug addicts. The worst thing about drug addiction is that it forces people to give up their freedoms and become slaves to the drug. A drug addict is not able to act freely, but is always under the control of some desire, a deep, dark need that is never satisfied for long.
My parents have been drug addicts for as long as I can remember. If freedom is defined as the ability to leave the house, to go where one pleases, to say whatever one feels like, then my parents are free. Honestly, they have spent very little time incarcerated in light of the “crimes” they have commit-ted, keeping in mind that many drugs are illegal, and many drug addicts do illegal things to get those drugs. But I define freedom as the ability to make choices, the opportunity to pursue happiness, the capability of protecting and providing for loved ones. Drug addicts like my parents lose all of these things, slowly, as the addiction builds and get stronger. I remember days before my mom was a liar. I remember days when my mom cared about her children. Now my mom is in a prison of her own making. The prison will be with her for the rest of her life, and the only goal she will ever have is getting that one more fix.
There are people who have no sympathy for drug addicts, who want them locked away in a prison, who want to blame the addicts because they chose to use drugs in the first place. My parents have four children. Two of those children got involved with drugs at an early age; one of them had serious struggles with addiction. My parents didn’t have the freedom to teach us right from wrong. They were wholly consumed by their own needs and we had only their actions as our model. How many imprisoned drug addicts only did what they learned from their parents? Is that really a choice?
I know what freedom is because I witnessed my parents lose their freedom, first to drug addiction, then to jail cells and mental hospitals. I watched my sister lose herself the same way. I know what freedom is because I can choose to spend my money on all sorts of things, some wise, some not, but I am not compelled to fork it all over to some creep in a rundown parking lot. I know what freedom is because when I make a mistake, when I tell a lie, when I let someone down, it is because I had the ability to choose things, and I made a wrong choice when I am capable of making a better one. I know what freedom is because my goals change, because my future can hold anything, because I have so much to look forward to; there are limitless possibilities.