The beach was far from crowded, but there were some people braving the wind and the colder-than-seasonal temperatures. Some were there for a quiet walk, and others were there to remember or commemorate. It was not the same Utah Beach that greeted lookouts for the German army on June 6, 1944. The sleepy Normandy countryside and breezy, sandy beaches were being overrun by American forces as the D-Day invasion of France began.
I am not a historian, nor am I any kind of military buff. I also didn’t sit down to write a sentimental ode to Independence Day; I’m sure there will be plenty of that on the Internet, in newspapers, and on television all across the country today. I was working on finishing up my final Bête Noire post and I decided to take a quick break and sort through some of my vacation pictures and start putting together something to show anyone who asks.
As I came across my Normandy pictures, I was reminded of how seeing those beaches and trying to picture what they were like for hundreds of thousands of young American, British, and Canadian men was a much more emotional experience than I had anticipated. I expected to be interested in the events and somewhat saddened at thought of the tremendous loss of life, but it was very abstract. I didn’t have any personal connections to the events that started 67 years ago, and I was going to the beaches out of a more intellectual curiosity rather than any sort of homage.
We started at Utah Beach. Standing with the sea at my back and looking up at the dunes, it suddenly hit me – a vivid, sudden image of soldiers facing those very same the same dunes, who would climb over the top and be faced not with peaceful fields of golden wheat and green meadows broken up by hedgerows, but by the bullets and bombs of the enemy. What would it be like to think that those dunes might be the last thing I see?
Why were they there? It’s not useful to me to consider why our governments sent them there. The leaders of a country have to think about a broad picture, the general interests of the country, and of international relations and alliances that help ensure the survival of a nation. The reasons for a nation to fight do not always coincide with the reasons a soldier fights. I wondered what the men themselves thought they were fighting for. Is there any truth to the platitude that they fought for freedom?
My thoughts turned to a writing assignment I regularly give students: define an abstract concept that we often take for granted. I give them some examples: family, love, honor, freedom, success. Some do very well on this assignment and others are completely thrown off by realization that they can’t quite express what they think they know. It felt like the right time to put aside what I had been writing to complete my own assignment, to define a concept that I no longer take for granted: freedom.
I sympathize with my students because it’s difficult to know where to start. I’ve never thought of myself as a ‘free spirit’ or someone who is completely unconstrained by convention and rules, and yet I feel that the search for freedom has been a guiding principle in my life. I was surprised that the task to define the word was stalled already. My default is to study the word itself for clues, but I wasn’t sure this was going to help me. I had to start somewhere, so I checked the dictionaries. The one definition that gave me pause was from the 2011 Random House: “the power to determine action without restraint.”
This definition sparked something, a recognition. It feels to me that freedom is, in its essence, power. When a person has power over their own actions, beliefs, and welfare, that person has freedom. This power can come through various channels and at varying costs, but it’s the kind of power that people are willing to die for, which is itself an ultimate expression of that freedom.
This was a start, but it was still too abstract. What other things would control my actions or beliefs other than myself? The word freedom is tossed about freely on this day because obviously, a government is one entity that controls people and takes away their power to control their own actions, and today we celebrate our hard-fought political freedoms. But surely there are other things that take away our ability to decide on our own course of action or even thought. What about families? Marriages? School or jobs? Do these things restrict us even if we enter into them willingly? And does this mean we’re not ‘free’?
Buddhism defines Nirvana as the freedom from desires, fear, or social commitments. When I no longer feel an obligation to these concepts, I am free. I can understand being a slave to one’s desires. We work to get money to buy ourselves things that we have to maintain with money, so we go to work to get money…ad nauseum. We could also substitute material desires with other desires: prestige, power, social status, enlightenment, knowledge, excitement, adventure. If we are working solely to satisfy these desires, can we be free?
Just as I may not be free if my actions are guided by desire alone, I am not free if I let other people’s expectations or traditions dictate my behavior. I remind myself on a regular basis how lucky I am to live in a society that hasn’t forced me though the sheer power of its will to fulfill certain duties and roles simply because of my gender. I may face some difficulties, but I can make my own choices and am free to choose different roles for myself. Fear seems to underlie both of these situations: fear of not getting what you want, fear of being ostracized, fear of retribution, fear of physical harm.
Again, are we restricted even if we do these things willingly? Aren’t I free to restrict myself in the way I see fit? Can I not at any time release myself from social obligation, face my fear, or let go of my desire for something? The key word to answer these questions is obligation. I don’t lose my freedom if I am working to pursue a professional, personal or intellectual goal, for example; I lose my freedom when I feel the obligation towards that goal. If I feel like I have to have the promotion, or the house, or the dream vacation, or the love of someone, then my actions are controlled by that desire and not by my own free will.
So freedom is the release from obligations, the power to choose actions based on our own guiding principles and not on social convention, fear, or consuming desire. That power over myself should be absolute, and it should not extend beyond myself. I do not have the right to exercise that power to remove the freedom of others; indeed, the obligation to sustain that power over others restricts me, takes away my own freedom.
Is that what they were fighting for? Is that what would drive me over the dunes to face death on behalf of millions of faceless people who might never even understand? I still don’t have any strong personal connections to people who fought in the war or who landed on the beaches that day. I still have objections to the reasons that government leaders send their citizens to make these choices and face the dangers of war. Those on the front lines are fighting for their own reasons and I can’t speak for them. But words that may have sounded trite to me in the past have more substance now, and so today, I sincerely thank those who fought – and still fight – truly with the idea of wielding their own freedom to defend ours.
Great post. I loved my visit to Utah and Omaha Beaches. So picturesque and peaceful as you sit there imagining the stark contrast in the violence and terror of that day.
Thanks! I don’t think it’s the kind of place I would travel specifically to see, but I’m so glad I went. It’s remarkable how peaceful it is but also how impossible it is to not imagine that day (or the next, or the one after that…).
Brilliant, brilliant essay, Leo. You are as much a philosopher as you are a linguist, and “wielding their own freedom to defend ours” is a sublime phrase.
Thank you so much, my dear!
I think of freedom more like a possibility than a situation. Not to be free of commitments or responsibilities but to be able to choose if I want to commit or to be responsible.
By the way, pretty nice the photo of the poppies.
Exactly. If I’m obliged to make those commitments, then I don’t have the same possibilities as I would have if I were free from that obligation. I don’t think the commitment itself takes away our freedom, just the obligation to make them. It’s one of the reasons I get really angry at myself when I let myself be guilted into something I don’t want to do, like extra hours at work for example. It’s not like I suddenly hate the work, but I despise feeling like I didn’t have a choice and now I’m stuck.
And thanks – I like when people like my pictures. It means they might see the same beauty that I saw in the subject matter when I took the picture :)