I feel all jazzed up and patriotic after this weekend’s Independence Day celebrations. There were over the top proclamations of freedom seemingly every time I turned around.
As we begin a new work week in the wake of freedom-selling, this is a great opportunity to ponder the topic. It’s good to contemplate such an important concept away from all the speechifying, and nationalism that euphorically washes over us each July Fourth.
When we envision true freedom, we do not limit it to stuff that doesn’t much matter. Sure, we are free to wear our favorite brands of blue jeans or to stay up all night on weekends while binge-watching videos. Just because I can buy and eat my favorite pizza doesn’t necessarily mean I’m truly free. Such freedoms are nice, but they are mere shadows of actual freedom. The true test of the existence of freedom is the legal right to differ in matters that go to the heart of our very being. If we are at liberty to live our lives to the fullest, most positive sense, we are free. When this liberty is extended to everyone, then we can legitimately proclaim that we live in a free country.
A few decades ago, my friend Felix and I lived in an apartment directly above that of an ex-convict–I’ll call him Jacob. He served a term in the Nebraska State Penitentiary for interstate transport of a stolen vehicle. He was in the process of starting his life over. He obtained a well-paying job at our town’s steel production factory. From time to time Jacob, Felix and I enjoyed hanging out together.
Upon my urging, Jacob often talked about his time behind bars. He could never get over being totally stripped of his freedom and individuality. In order to survive in the prison environment he had to conform to barbaric norms. He was reminded of his lack of freedom many times daily by his jailers and fellow inmates. To a free-spirited young man like Jacob, the near-total absence of freedom was overkill. Any spark of goodness he possessed had to be harbored in the back of his mind.
Jacob said he learned many things in prison, most of them were bad at the least and felonious at the worst. He did manage to enjoy some positive parts of the penitentiary–mostly the gym and the library. In that way, Jacob was able to maintain a semblance of optimism and hope. He could hardly wait until he was free again.
Despite Jacob’s yearning for freedom and his desire to re-invent himself doing legitimate work, he couldn’t resist wrong-doing. One day, a Madison County, Nebraska deputy sheriff arrived at Jacob’s apartment with a search warrant. A farmer had reported the theft of a turkey from his farm. When Jacob answered the knock on the door, the deputy smelled roasting turkey. Upon searching the rest of the apartment complex, the feathers and other remains of a turkey were discovered in the outside garbage dumpster. Jacob pleaded guilty to misdemeanor theft and spent several weeks in the county jail.
The theft and conviction, led to the loss of his job and apartment. After that incident, I lost track of Jacob for about ten years or so. One afternoon, while grocery shopping, a man called out my name. I turned and saw a skinny, weathered shell of someone I barely recognized. Jacob briefly hugged me, then he immediately asked if I had a television I could give him. I reminded Jacob that I don’t watch teevee so I didn’t own one.
I told him his request seemed odd. Jacob then gave a brief summary of his life after his county jail sentence. In another attempt to get his life together, he worked odd jobs in Kansas and New Mexico. Jacob eventually landed full-time work at a large copper mine near Salt Lake City, Utah.
Our encounter didn’t last long because his girlfriend was eager to leave the store. I don’t know if Jacob has been able to stay out of jail or prison. He has not stayed in touch. Regardless of circumstances, Jacob did not look like a free man.
It’s compelling that the life of my former neighbor came to mind this past weekend. Perhaps all the brouhaha about freedom triggered the memories about Jacob. He knew freedom; he knew incarceration; he regained freedom at least twice; he seemed to be on the run again when I last saw him. Although Jacob claimed to value freedom, he discarded it often. It seems that he mistook licentiousness for freedom.
I wonder where Jacob is today.