Today we celebrate the 241st birthday of the greatest nation on the planet. While getting ready for the day making such American classics as cole slaw, potato salad and gazpacho (okay, two out of three isn’t bad), I pondered what to write today that might not be as obvious as the title I chose. Upon further consideration, I am going to stick with first principles on this day that commemorates our forefathers penning our nation’s first principles.
Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness—what does that mean and why did the authors of our Constitution pick those specific words. I’m not going to be so pompous as to think I know something Constitutional scholars haven’t already expresses or even that I can clarify things my coauthors have written over the past six plus months of this experiment. But I do want to write down what they mean to me.
Life: This is our most basic need. Maslow’s hierarchy captures it as physiological needs and safety. Physiological needs include air, water, food, clothing and shelter. Safety needs include a society that values all human life and governs in manner that balances individual safety with socially accepted norms. Throughout our brief history, Americans arrived on our shores for this most basic of needs whether it Irish escaping famine, Jews fleeing persecution in the Soviet Union or most recently, Syrian refugees simply trying to find safety.
Liberty: This is the freedom to make our own choices. It’s inherently individual in character and allows us to think for ourselves, take risk and determine our place in the group. This is core to our identity as Americans. It resonates through the political debate today and always has. States’ rights vs federal oversight. Abolitionists vs pro-slavery groups. Suffragists vs the white male majority. The founding fathers held this right dearest, I believe, because although Maslow states differently, it’s foundational to the other two. Life is not life if someone else is calling all the shots. We can’t pursue happiness if we don’t have the freedom to choose. Only through liberty can we pursue our dreams like Germans and Italians in the 19th century.
Pursuit of Happiness: The key word is pursuit. We can’t overemphasize that enough. Happiness isn’t guaranteed, but the opportunity to pursue it is. Pursuit takes many forms and involves individual choices for which we need to take responsibility. That’s the difference between entitlement and pursuit of happiness. Governments can limit this right and do so all over the world, but even more insidious to me is the passive obstacle put up by others around us that chip away at our pursuit of happiness until we give up because we’re trying to make someone else happy. Don’t get me wrong. Many of my choices are options to make someone else happy, but I do so because it makes me happy to see them happy. Following? When we make choices to satisfy others, but the choice to make them happy comes at the cost of our pursuit of happiness, we surrender this right. It’s complicated and only we know when we’re serving with joy our surrendering in defeat.
The forefathers described these rights as inalienable, meaning they cannot be taken away from or given away from by the possessor. Obviously, I disagree with that based on the previous paragraph. I think those rights are intrinsic meaning natural or essential to us. We can choose to give them up for others and often do for reasons that are simultaneously selfless and selfish. If we think too much about this internal dichotomy, we’ll paralyze ourselves with analysis. My best advice comes from another great American…Be good and do good things.