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Unsold Fourth of July op-ed #2: Self-shackling

Monday 7/8/19

The internal Fourth of July


I used to spend my Sundays in a now defunct Boston bar called Durgin Park, where our earliest sons and daughters of Liberty once gathered to formalize the dreams of a young Republic.


The bartender and I became friends, but sparring partners. I was perpetually single, and he would, in naval parlance, run his flag up any welcoming mast. My gripe was that I only met people who claimed to like the exact same three or four things that everyone else liked. I wanted passion, people with curiosities, individuals who sought out different books, ideas, films, albums, plays, sports, to get into and get into deeply.


“I have news for you, buddy,” my friend said. “We’re a pack species. We go around in groups.”

I countered this by saying no, we have individuality, free will, that’s what makes us most human. Hooray for personal freedoms and all of that jazz.


I knew, of course, where he was coming from, but as we catch a whiff of mesquite from the grill on this Fourth of July, I still think it’s worth underscoring just how amazing personal internal freedom is, and what a shame it is that we’re getting so bad at tapping into it.

We have a tendency to self-shackle. One of the greatest things I loved about getting into bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones was that soon meant I was electing to plunge myself into the world of Elmore James, Muddy Waters, Arthur Alexander, the Shirelles, Howlin’ Wolfe, who was the baddest man I ever heard—in a good way. I sought them out, because these bands I dug so much dug those artists so much.


I wonder who does this now. Probably precocious mid-teens. But do adults? For all of the freedoms we enjoy—at least in theory—there is no greater freedom than what we can elect to pursue to broaden our happiness, our knowledge, the quality of our leisure, our spirits, our souls.


The thing about a pack is, you could put so many other things in front of it, and the pack would follow that. In other words, it’s not about the quality of what is being followed, it’s about its visibility, how easily rote it is to stay in that holding pattern with the group. It’s like we have no personal say-so, or we are choosing to vacate our free will. You flip on the switch for autopilot, which I guess is a kind of personal choice, but then that’s not you flying that plane.

Fly your own dirigible. That seems as American as anything can be to me. Also as Platonic as anything can be, which makes sense, given that our Founding Fathers were certainly steeped in what people as long ago as Plato and Socrates had to teach us.


It’s affirming when you find something awesome that you connect with. Don’t say you don’t have time, because you do. You have a dog? You don’t even have to go to the store anymore to get his food, you order it online. Life now is a series of shortcuts and conveniences. Let’s face it: you’re not taking your free time and saying, “Huh, it’s time for me to read all of Proust in assorted translations so I can see what edition works best.”


Time is something we always have more of than we tell anyone else—including ourselves—than we do. Sharing what you’ve found that dovetails with you with another person, helps you connect with them when they connect with that thing you both have in common now for personal, legit reasons.


Enthusiasm burbles, and it’s not because of a marketing campaign or being too lazy to seek out anything else. It’s because you exerted your individuality, and it’s in doing that that we really build a meaningful community.


A long time ago, this was called turning someone on. Not sexually, obviously. But kindredly. So turn on your personal tastes, turn on your Lewis and Clark exploratory nature, turn on your inner freedoms as you drink a toast to America on its birthday.


That’s the spirit of the day, the individual spirit in you.