I have to admit that I’ve become a bit of a freedom junkie. As a native West Virginian, there’s this desire, deep inside, to be unfettered. When I was a child I expressed it by wandering all day long through the hills and valleys around my home. No phone, of course, and no radio. No way to contact, or be contacted by, anyone else. I remember being about 13 or 14 when my dad let me go off into the woods with my single-barreled shotgun to hunt. I never shot anything. But I was free.
Later I was encumbered in some ways by college, medical school and residency. But when my wife and I moved to South Carolina, and ended up in our rural, hilltop log-house, I rediscovered the deep inner peace of freedom. Our family roams at will through the woods around our home, the state forest across the road. On July 4th and New Year’s Eve we set off fireworks as long as we want. On Halloween our bon-fire roars high as the tree-tops.
We throw clay-pigeons over the back yard and shoot them; we have lost untold arrows in the woods, and have behaved like barbarians for years, simply for the joy of doing what we wanted to do. Our five dogs and three cats collude in our freedom, and have furry smiles as we sling dinner scraps over the back deck into their un-caged, happy mouths.
In 2005, my wife and I discovered a kind of liberty that we had never imagined. We began to homeschool. That adventure liberated us from the constraints of state-determined schedules, curricula and ideology. It allowed us delicious, lavish time together, whether the kids were playing in the pool while rehearsing Latin declensions with my wife, or traveling to the Grand Canyon during the off-season. We were unencumbered, and while the children learned much and learned well, we had precious little oversight to pester or constrain our wild, free time together, when we rolled about in our fragrant love for one another. If we had known how it would be all along, we would have started homeschooling much earlier.
Two years ago, I found more freedom. I took the plunge, left my partnership of 20 years and Jan and I started a small corporation, LeapMedicine. I began working as an independent contractor. I worked where, and when, I wanted. I still do. If I don’t want to work a holiday, I don’t. If I want to work, I do. If I work a shift and don’t like it, I don’t go back once my committed shifts are over.
There are costs to freedom. It’s magnificent but unpredictable. The cost of owning a business is sometimes daunting in America today, although I wish I had done it sooner. There are others. We recently tried to refinance our mortgage. We discovered, to our chagrin, that large companies want people in communities of boxes. You can refinance a house in a subdivision. But a log house on a hilltop is unnerving to banks and lenders. It isn’t the same as everyone else. It’s less predictable, and understandably. It may not sell. Only so many people are comfortable away from the crowd, away from the comfort of commonality.
Indeed, we are nationally obsessed with being members of a herd. Ask a kid in school if it’s OK to be different, the way every kid book with a quirky penguin and a sad skunk says it is. It isn’t. There’s a price, and it’s paid in bullying or marginalization. Maybe it’s good training, because the same dynamic certainly exists in the world of adults. Try saying the wrong thing, wearing the wrong emblem, believing in something unpopular, standing for a viewpoint on principle not popularity.
Bullying just takes different forms; like social media campaigns, or lawsuits. Being marginalized means ridicule by a professor, lack of promotion by a boss, firing by a corporation. America, the land of the free, doesn’t really like freedom these days. Freedom means you might hurt someone’s feelings, crush their fragile self-esteem, say something shocking. Freedom of ideas is a beautiful dream, but the kids on the adult playground of modern thought are like the bullies from our childhood, dressed up in suits, with law degrees and political offices; and with the same fragile sense of self the old bullies had. But they have more power to punish the free, more power to torment the outlier. Fortunately, truly free people relish their freedom so much that they become hardened to the ways of bullies and go on living in joy and liberty.
I set out to write this as an homage to homeschooling. But as so often happens, I discovered that homeschooling, and even business ownership, are merely some of the sweet fruits of an attitude, of a decision, to be free. It was what made America, once upon a time, a great country. It’s what real Americans long for, live for and are willing to defend and die to preserve.
I hope that my children, and their children and all the rest can remain free. I hope that they can thumb their collective noses at those who silence, subjugate, manipulate and ridicule those who just want to live and be left alone. I hope they take their children on trips and walk away from unnecessary constraints. I hope that they forge new ways to be free and remake this nation.
Freedom. Take every step necessary to preserve yours, and your children’s. Because once it is surrendered it does not return easily.
And once enjoyed, perhaps the most addictive thing in all the world.