Freedom: just another word?

My teen daughter said upon our return from Europe two summers ago, “Everyone should visit another country sometime.” Indeed. The experience is always eye-opening, especially for we myopic Americans. But more so, the experience of someone who grew up elsewhere is particularly insightful in displaying how the things we take for granted aren’t universal and may have debatable merit.

I had the benefit of this perspective recently when Mohan, my friend from Nepal, and I hiked the trails of the Nature Conservancy Preserve at Falls Ridge in the North Fork Valley on an overcast but mild winter day recently.

“Freedom is contextual,” he said, in his rapid-fire but typically excellent English.

His command of the language is enviable for even those of us who grew up with it, but his staccato cadence and accents on different syllables than this old Southern boy makes me have to ask for a retake every so often.

“So what do you mean, contextual?” I asked.

“One man’s freedom may be another man’s enslavement,” he said. “For instance, Americans are huge on personal property rights. You’d never see a ‘No Trespassing’ sign in Nepal. A man may have a fence around his property to keep his dog from straying, but he’d never restrict access to anyone. He’d probably be pleased to welcome any visitor! I’d never seen a ‘No Trespassing’ sign until I moved here.”

I’d met Mohan several months earlier on the Huckleberry Trail. I was riding my bicycle, when he and a friend flagged me down. He had a flat tire on his bike. I was able to patch his tube and get him moving again. I heard him talking with his friend in a foreign tongue and asked which it was. He said, “Nepalese.”

An inveterate backpacker, I’d always dreamed of walking in the Himalayas in Nepal and admitted a fascination for his country. We spoke about his homeland briefly. I invited him to my house to give his bike a complete once-over, and a friendship was born.

“Americans have this ‘A man’s home is his castle’ mentality,” he continued, “and think they’re free because they can wall it off from everyone else. My people enjoy the freedom to walk our beautiful country wherever our hearts take us.”

He asked me about the ownership of the land where we were walking. I told him what I knew about the Nature Conservancy and how the preserve was open to the public. But of course it is an island of free public access in a sea of private ownership.

I asked him for other examples.

“Our women may choose to wear covering over their faces. Americans think this is horrible. Our women enjoy the freedom of personal privacy, to be in public places without the trauma of being the object of a complete stranger’s sexual desire. American women seem to feel their freedom lies in being able to display their sexuality in practically every setting.”

“I don’t know how I feel about this one,” I admitted. “But then, I’m not a woman. I don’t know how I’d feel if I were being stared at lustily by passersby.”

Mohan had had his wife picked for him by relatives back in Nepal.

“I went home on holiday,” he once told me, “and was told about the arrangement. I was introduced to her, we talked for fifteen minutes or so, and decided it was going to work out fine. We arranged the ceremony right away and four days later several hundred people came.” He thought for a moment and said, “I’m sure lots of the family members and friends who came had other plans already, but it is important to our people to show their love to us and appreciation for what we were doing. A couple of weeks later I was headed back to America with my new wife.

“So what I’m saying is freedom is different things to different people.”

Further up the mountain trail he said, “This one always astounds me. Americans are gun-crazy! You think you are free because you can own and carry guns everywhere. Perhaps people are freer if they can walk the streets of their city or sit in the stands of a sporting event with the knowledge that nobody has a gun. You have smoke-free establishments and drug-free schools. Why not gun-free cities?”

Good point. Our freedom to own guns has made us anything but freer from fear or gun violence.

We have countless freedoms we seemingly take for granted, some vital and some inconsequential. We have the right to make a right turn on red. We have the right to be constantly bombarded with marketing messages for products that do nothing to enhance our lives. We have the freedom to make our own reproductive choices, at least for now. We have the freedom to pay taxes that fund schools whether our children attend them, that fund roads whether or not we drive, and that fund a war apparatus whether or not we believe in war.

Our conversation occurred at a time when President Bush has admitted to systematically and repeatedly violating the constitutional freedoms of American citizens by spying on them, doing just the kind of shenanigans the nation’s Founding Fathers worked so hard to prevent. If he can jail people without charge or bond or legal representation, torture people, or invade their homes or conversations without a warrant, what can’t he do?

This trailside civics lesson is meant neither to neither preach nor espouse, but to stimulate thought. It wouldn’t hurt any of us to remind ourselves what our freedoms mean and how what our forefathers sacrificed to make sure we had them.