Best Fourth of July events in the DC area/WTOP News. Credit: PR Newswire

Personal Freedom and the Fourth of July

Personal Freedom: freedom of the person in going and coming, equality before the courts, security of private property, freedom of opinion and its expression, and freedom of conscience subject to the rights of others and of the public. – Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Personal Freedom: is it a real idea or an ideal made up that each one of us needs to work toward in our own life? I once had a very wise piano teacher say “Sharon, only when you learn the basics of music, only then can one go on to write a symphony.”

Like freedom, keeping commitments is musical. As I learn the keys, the notes and the melody of commitments, the longer I remain in them. This internal metronome is how I keep the time for the music of my personal freedom. Nina Simone, a great blues singer, expresses the desire for [personal] freedom in her song, “I Wish I Knew What It Would Feel Like To Be Free.”

I wish I knew how it would feel to be free

I wish I could break all the chains holding me

I wish I could say all the things that I should say

Say 'em loud, say 'em clear

For the whole round world to hear

I wish I could share all the love that's in my heart

Remove all the bars that keep us apart

I wish you could know what it means to be me

Then you'd see and agree

That every [one] should be free

I too wish I knew what it’s like to be free. Freedom is a journey of rhythms, flats, sharps and other key musical combinations. Combinations expressed through choices, relationships, beliefs and commitments. Commitments: Are they confining or do they hold me and help me to be free? Do I learn the basics for the composition of symphony of life through each commitment freely given?

I cannot say that every commitment I have made in my life has led me to greater personal freedom. Some might view commitment as a type of chain as Nina refers to, but I think that the few lifelong, truly heartfelt or heart-led commitments have brought me a deeper sense of personal freedom. I have broken chains that have been deep within and kept me from being closer to others. Does making a commitment, a lifelong commitment, limit or expand personal freedom? Through these commitments, I’ve come to know limits and expectations that have helped me to share “all the love in my heart.”    

“freedom of the person in going and coming …”

Instead of the words within the Merriam-Webster definition for personal freedom, “in going and coming,” I think of personal freedom more in regards to “entering and exiting.” I am free to go places, to enter into conversations, relationships, communities, groups and even countries. I can also choose to exit. Personal freedom exists in the decision making, in the timing of entering and exiting, in the letting in and the letting go. My perspective on the meaning of commitments has been formed by my identity as a woman religious, a Roman Catholic Franciscan Sister and living in the United States. 

I wish you could know what it means to me … that everyone should be free.

Nina Simone
nina simone. Wikipedia Commons

Personal freedom slowly evolves into the notes of a personal life symphony. As a vowed woman religious, some of the notes change. The rhythm definitely works with different melodies and, even when the circumstances change, there are relationships that continue to sing and hold lingering notes in my heart. In communal religious life, the change of rhythm happens by death, transfer or departure from the vowed life by others. Thus, the entering and the exiting of commitments tends to strengthen my own personal freedom. It does so because with faith I continue to hear the notes within, those that help me to compose the lived-out symphony.

“Freedom of opinion and its expression, and freedom of conscience subject to the rights of others and of the public.”

As we near the celebration of the 4th of July — and in retrospect January 6, 2021 — freedom of opinion and expression matters. Do these two days remove bars? Or do we use our opinions and expression to establish sides to justify beliefs? Are we keeping others from expressing their rights and personal freedom? 

For many years I attended the National Mall for Fourth of July celebrations in Washington D.C., a celebration about freedom the United States. Each gathering brought up a sweet melody of joy and (some) pride of being a citizen of the U.S. for me. Diverse crowds shared a vision of freedom that was expressed through music and the fireworks. While I took in the breathtaking beauty, I was restored in my sense of living in a country that provides potential for freedom and work for the rights of others and of the public. I highly recommend the experience, even if it is simply what is shared by PBS.

Best Fourth of July events in the DC area/WTOP News. Credit: PR Newswire
Credit: PR Newswire

And then the events at the U.S. Capitol Building on Jan. 6, 2021, came to pass. I now wonder when or at what point does the expression of personal freedom start, and how does an attack or any type of a violence affect an expression of personal freedom? Violence is NOT included in any part of Merriam-Webster’s definition of personal freedom. Violence seems to have become some type of expression of righteousness that I simply cannot grasp.

On that January day, my cousin was one of the people ushered off the congressional floor and locked in the inner-office space with staffers and U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. My cousin speaks of terror and how her faith kept her calm; how Congresswoman Pelosi spoke about her own faith and whispered to those who wanted to join her in prayer to pray the Peace Prayer of St. Francis. As they did, creating their own sense of calm while crouching under tables, the banging of those trying to violently enter that room suddenly stopped.

For me, inner calm is an essential element of personal freedom, yet inner calm is not in the definition either. Maybe it’s what Nina Simone refers to when she sings about flying like a bird:

Well, I wish I could be like a bird in the sky

How sweet it would be if I found I could fly

Oh, I'd soar to the sun and look down at the sea

And then I'd sing 'cause I'd know, yeah

Then I'd sing 'cause I'd know, yeah

Then I'd sing 'cause I'd know

I'd know how it feels

I don’t want to confuse or convolute spirituality with politics, but I believe that during the events of January 6, 2021 at the U.S. capitol — and what is currently being revealed in the congressional hearings — has forced anyone with a conscience to reflect and ask questions about lies, hate and truth. How does my choice affect that of another? Individual answers and questions will each be different, and that is reflective of personal freedom.

But I wonder, is personal freedom in the violence expressed by those who took to riot and siege the Capital Building? With those who were holding the line to protect the individuals there? Or with those in the building working toward a vote confirmation on behalf of the people of the United States? Why does an individual resort to violence to express their views?

Personal freedom is of the person, but one person is not the entity of the voice for the whole of the people. Does the aspect of the definition freedom of opinion and its expression become synonymous with violence? If so, when and why? Where is dialogue and the freedom of conscience for the rights of others? I don’t know the answer. I do know that having been a person who deeply cares about my country and my own personal freedom means care for the common good and freedom from fear. 

I really do not understand a need for violence in any circumstance. Even when faced with violence, I tune into that inner symphony of personal freedom and open myself to the notes that flow out. I don’t believe that those individuals who brought tremendous fear on the U.S. Capital that day were expressing their individual personal freedom. Fear is not an expression of personal freedom.

But I am left to wonder: is the expression of personal freedom within each of these groups of individuals as well? If so, why was there such violence and fear? Where or when does violence hold a part in the expression, or does it have a place in personal freedom at all? Violence is never defined in the understanding of personal freedom, so when did it or has it become one of the expressions of personal freedom? Violence begets violence and is the opposite of inner calm or a sense of dancing a rhythmic pattern with the Holy, a place of deep peace — a mantra that helps me to find “the longing to give … the longing to live… to do all the things … and start anew.”

Most often I am a person with a multitude of questions and few answers. Some of my questions continue to arise: Do I truly allow others to express their opinions, especially offering mine before I’ve been asked? Do I LISTEN — really listen — with my heart so others can express their right to speak in public? What or who do I judge and why? Why do I judge one opinion and not another or any individual’s expression of opinion? Where or when does violence cross a line and is no longer an expression of personal freedom

These questions might seem frivolous, but there is an “I” statement in each. I — a religious woman — judge, question, ignore, forget to listen and can do harm. I am human. I have a strong relationship with the Holy One. I am developing, and I am on my way. 

I have come to believe personal freedom for one individual or for myself does or can conflict with the personal freedom as lived out by another human. It is there, in that time of conflict, that I need to listen closely to the more subtle notes as well as the whole and other rest notes that continue to make up the music of my personal symphony.

Part of music making and living with freedom is listening with my heart wide open. It is only then, in the musical rhythm in my heart and with the Holy, that I can move with the swaying and gradation of an energy expressed in a new and unique dance that becomes an expression of the internal melody of my life! I can enter and exit with my own personal freedom in place, learning to live out this emerging symphony of my commitments while I honor the personal freedom in another. For then …

I'd soar to the sun and look down at the sea

And then I'd sing 'cause I'd know, yeah

Then I'd sing 'cause I'd know, yeah

Then I'd sing 'cause I'd know

I'd know how it feels

I'd know how it feels to be free, yeah, yeah

Oh, I'd know how it feels

Yes, I'd know, I'd know how it feels

How it feels to be free, Lord, Lord, Lord, yeah

How will you celebrate and live out your personal freedom on this fourth of July?

Maybe I will simply watch the celebration on the U.S. Capital Mall on PBS and remember how I continue to live out my personal freedom in this country.


Sister SHaron Dillard

Sharon Dillon is a Sister of St. Joseph of the Third Order of St. Francis currently residing at The Fireplace in Chicago. As a 15-year master special educator, writer and Franciscan spiritual director, she is always looking at life with a focus on the integration of theology with her Franciscan spirituality. Sister Sharon has previously served as the executive director of both the Franciscan Mission Service of North America and the Franciscan Federation of the Third Order for the United States, as well as board of directors president of My Own Place Inc., an agency that provides housing for individuals with special needs. Currently Sister Sharon teaches special education at a public middle school.

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