In April 1905 my father, then seven years old, stepped off the Main, a German freighter, onto American soil at Ellis Island. Like many other immigrants he got a new name and moved to a new life far different from his origins. By the time the Main was scrapped in 1925, my father was a successful medical doctor.
He claimed he was born in Philadelphia. Why didn’t he talk about the immigrant experience? Perhaps it was too complicated to explain. Lithuania, where he came from, kept changing from Poland to Russia. He was not Slavic but listed as “Hebrew” under “Race or People” on the Ellis Island documents. Like so many others before him, he reinvented himself in America. The ability to do this has been, perhaps, Americans’ greatest freedom.
It goes on every day. We can be new and different. We don’t need to change our identity. We can just change our appearance, or what we talk about, or the things we do.
But with this freedom comes the responsibility to cherish it. I grew up during the Cold War and read many books about life in the former Soviet Union, including The Gulag Archipelago and Darkness At Noon. I don’t take for granted this freedom we have here in America to be who we are and who we want to be, and to speak our minds.
As we celebrate the day we declared ourselves a separate and independent nation, I am thinking about freedom. I am thinking about the American way. We believe in “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” We declared this in the first American document on July 4, 1776.
As human beings we are born with three essential skills, imagination, cognition, and motivation. This gives us the ability to reinvent ourselves. In few places can we do this.
Having the ability to reinvent ourselves differs from having the opportunity. In the United States, we have the personal power to change our attitudes, to change our activities, to become who we decide we want to be. Through hard work and determination, we can reinvent our lives. That freedom and opportunity comes at a price. We have the obligation to value it and use it for the common good.
What would my father’s life have been like had he not gotten away from the religious persecution of his native land? What would my life have been like had the Nazis won World War II? Or had the Communists buried us, as they threatened during the Cold War?
Viktor Frankl said, “Our greatest freedom is the freedom to choose our attitude.” We can choose our attitude even when imprisoned under dire conditions, as Frankl was. But we can’t reinvent ourselves unless we have the freedom to do that. To think is one thing, to do, another.
What freedom do you hold most dear?
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