Is This the Freedom They Fought (and Died) For?

I was walking through the UVM campus the other day. There is some new construction going on, so some of the sidewalks are closed. I realized I was going to have to take a detour. There was a path worn across the lawn, a kind of muddy bridge between one sidewalk and another. That path took me where I wanted to go … but path or not, it meant crossing the lawn, and I just couldn’t do it! I backtracked and took another sidewalk.

Sidewalks were where you walked – that’s what my Dad drummed into us. You don’t walk on another person’s lawn. To this day I have a hard time stepping off a sidewalk to take a shortcut across the lawn. I’m 63 years old and I am still observing that parental code.

My Dad worked hard on the lawn when we were kids. As we played more and more outside he finally gave up. The baseball diamond (whiffle ball, actually) that was bludgeoned into the ground was allowed to stand. In fact, I remember how Dad would come out and hose down the dust so we didn’t choke to death as we played. But that was our yard. When the ball would cross the line onto the neighbor’s yard it was expected we would use the sidewalk and step as little on their lawn as possible, and tread lightly when we had no choice.

It seems more and more today people feel the need to exercise their freedom by claiming for themselves the right to say whatever they want, draw whatever they want, and brandish guns for everyone to see. We have come a long way from Don’t walk on your neighbor’s lawn. In a recent VPR Commentary, Willem Lang reflects on freedom’s dependence on common sense (Common Sense Speech). Disrespect comes in many forms; it is most insidious when it masquerades as “my right”, “my freedom”.  Gone are the days of “If you can’t say something nice about someone don’t say anything at all.”

It’s one of the paradoxes of the freedom we enjoy – that it only works when it is tethered to self-restraint based on respect for others. Just because I can doesn’t mean I should. Lang is correct. This is common sense. It’s hard to believe that our freedoms, gained at such a price, were intended only to pit us against each other in the name of liberty. The inequalities that persist; the racism that stubbornly hangs on; the irritants we level at each other large and small; the shootings – It’s hard to believe that these are the “rights” so many fought and died for.

It’s not that difficult, really. Use the sidewalk.

Mark Demers

Want to talk about sex, politics, spirituality? So do I. I grew up in a religious home in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Our country was reeling from assassinations and the devastation of the Viet Nam War. Looking for something beautiful, I got a degree in music, married the love of my life and had children. Looking for God, I then went to seminary. Looking for something that might transform the world, I became a local church pastor. Now, I’m always looking for people who want to talk about important things. I cherish conversations with emerging leaders, people who are antsy to try an idea they believe would change the world for the better. I’d would love to hear from you.