I have a little ornament/cake topper that always makes me smile. It is a man standing at the edge of a crossroad. He has just put his foot down on one path. The sign pointing in that direction reads “The Rest of Your Life.” The other path’s sign is “No Longer An Option.”
Unfortunately, as we go through life we don’t see those signposts. Some of the most drastic changes in our lives happen because of seemingly small random decisions that don’t even feel like decisions, much less life-altering choices. The tapestry that is my life is full of these different threads (please excuse the change in metaphor) some tiny pieces of color and some that take over the entire design. Rarely was I aware of the impact of the decision; most often I was unaware I was making one.
Tiniest bit of background. When I was a child, I played ‘school’ not ‘house.’ (More than anything I played ‘cowboys and Indians’ outside, but that doesn’t come into this particular story.) I also loved books. My father was convinced I could read because I would recite my favorites, even pointing to each word as I did. But, I knew better. My mother promised that when I went to First Grade I would learn to read. I came home from the first day of that momentous school year, picked up a book, looked at it and, according to my mom, threw it across the room and screamed, “It didn’t work!”
After a few monumental hiccups on my journey, I followed my interests rather than those of my parents, teacher and guidance counselor, and entered the University of Maine, Portland-Gorham as an Elementary Education major with a minor in American Literature. Above all else, Lit majors read. Lots. So, at the beginning of my sophomore year, when I discovered a course called “The American Revolution According to Kenneth Roberts,” I thought I had found a small respite. I had already read all his books. It would save hours!
However, the course had numerous prerequisites, and my high school teachers had done a marvelous job of making history excruciatingly boring. Still, the idea of zipping through a course plus being able to discuss one of my favorite authors prevailed. Three semesters later when I was qualified to take the course, the instructor had left UMPG to teach in Utah. No one else taught it. There I was with almost enough credits to qualify for a minor in American History. Ultimately, the course helped me with the reading load, because I switched from a major in AmLit to minors in both.
American History was not boring in college. We did not simply memorize dates and names. We delved into the ideas behind the actions. Almost all my college work was concentrated on the Revolution, and the creation of the new country. It was a magnificent time, populated by incredible people.
As Americans we take freedom lightly. We were born in it. We take it for granted, just as the air that we breathe. Most of us do not value it, because we have never known its absence. Many are willing to give up some of the freedom, because they do not understand what it means to be in control of one’s own destiny, and some because it is not easy to take that responsibility. More and more we are being gently coerced into submission by allowing the government to take care of us, as a parent cares for a child. We are not children.
We were founded on the idea that people are able to govern themselves. That was such a radical concept in the Eighteenth Century! Except in a few small city-states, self-government had never been attempted. Countries were formed through wars and the population was governed by warlords. Some of those warlords managed to be in control for so many years and generations that they could convince their subjects that they were in control through Divine decree.
While the United States of America was formed after a war, it was not controlled by a conqueror, but, instead, by those who had managed to throw off their shackles.
The formation of our government, a representative republic, was a long, arduous process. It is an amazing accomplishment. Nothing like it existed. Our Founding Documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution assert that some rights of the People are lent to the government for the establishment and maintenance of a society. The Constitution is a strict limitation on Government. The powers of the Government are divided, to prevent a single person or group of people from becoming a ruling class. The powers of each branch are precisely defined, and all other rights and power belong to the governed.
With rights and power go responsibilities and obligations. It is human nature to want to increase one’s ability to control. Governments and the governed are in a constant battle. We live in a unique nation, still. Despite criticism and propaganda to the contrary, we are free to decide where and how to live. We have the ability to become whatever we choose to become.
I have chosen to be irrationally self-reliant. Thanks to a whimsical choice of a single college course, I realized that what was meant by someone at the UN as an insult, truly describes what it is to be American.