We are free. We live in a nation where freedom is a solid foundation, not a passing fashion. We embrace and treasure our freedom. Freedom to choose how to live, what to believe and to express our beliefs. This is the blessing of freedom. We do not, though, talk often about the burden of freedom. The moral burden of freedom. To not use freedom to harm others; to use freedom to care for others; to expand freedom to others; to respect the freedom of others; and to use freedom to search for truth.

The essence of freedom is to be able to choose the life we believe is a good life, to pursue happiness. Of course we are influenced, perhaps limited, by our culture, by the time and place in which we live, and by our own natural abilities and luck. My father had and my daughter has the gift of seeing how things work mechanically, while I, on the other hand, have difficulty figuring out how to open the small pretzel bag on an airplane. Thus I did not choose to be an engineer. And, as our economy is driven mainly by consumerism, we are conditioned to constantly want new things, the newest phone, the latest glittering fad. Even so, we have freedom to choose our work, who to be with and where and how to live.

So where is the burden in this? The burden is that we must respect and protect the lifestyles of those we find different. For example, those who do not agree with the LGBTQ community must not curtail their freedom to live as they choose, and the freedom of those of different religious and non-religious lifestyles must not be curtailed. Even more, we must work to expand freedom to those limited by poverty, lack of educational opportunity and discrimination.

What about our beliefs, especially those that guide our lives and the life of our community, state and nation? We are free to believe any theological or philosophical theories and ideas that we think will lead us to a good life, and any political doctrine we feel improves our society. But in doing so, we have a moral obligation to seek the truth, not to believe something simply because we are told to or because our friends do or because it is in our selfish interest to. Even more, we must respect, tolerate and listen to the beliefs we disagree with. A multiplicity of beliefs provides more choices for those seeking the truth.

This brings us to freedom of speech. Clearly, we prize this freedom to express our views about what is a good life for us and our community, state, nation and world. We must, also, tolerate and respect the freedom of all to do this, which can be very difficult in a time like the present when our divided politics, religious and secular differences too often lack civility. But truth is found only when all beliefs are allowed to be expressed publicly, and when we have the courage to face challenges to our beliefs, and that, although not easy, especially when voices shout and sting, is a blessing of freedom. Thus, when we express our beliefs we have the moral burden to do so without hatred, not to insult, demean and harm those with whom we disagree, to break bread with others in peace.

Our nation began in freedom. Of course, it has taken centuries for this freedom to be given to all. Slavery and legal segregation had to be eliminated; women had to be given rights equal to men; and the LGBTQ community given rights equal to others. Yes, we have extended freedom’s blessing, but we have to be aware of our burden to expand it to those not yet free.

Freedom: our blessing and burden.

Jack Hernandez is a retired director of the Norman Levan Center of the Humanities at Bakersfield College.