Thursday, July 04, 2013

life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness

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As a writer, July 4th is one of my favorite holidays. It celebrates the final draft of a document, which is always a joyous occasion. But rarely in history does a final draft change the course of world history.

In a document dated July 4, 1776, the 2nd Continental Congress worked its way through the original text, comments and edits, yet maintained these fateful words penned by Thomas Jefferson at the opening of the Declaration of Independence:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
We all know this sentence by heart. If we don't, we should. Because this simple sentence changed everything.  Every thing.

Jefferson wrote the original draft of the Declaration of Independence in just a few days, beginning in June 1776. Then, of course, it had to go to committee for editing. 

I can only imagine that process. I've been in editing meetings that lasted hours and spent days or even weeks discussing the content, wording, and layout of a document that described how to use a piece of software.

Now imagine going through this process with a roomful of lawyers. 

It wasn’t easy work. But the author, editors and signers knew that this document was going to set the world on fire. They knew they had to succinctly state  - for God, King George, the colonists, and posterity - the ultimate mission statement. A mission statement for which they were risking their lives, families, livelihoods and estates. 

On July 4th, Congress finished cutting all the deadwood and falderal, reducing the compiled text to a mere 23% of its proposed verbiage. They start with their 'why' statement:
"When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation."
They continue with a statement of beliefs, and then give a long list of serious grievances that have violated that core of beliefs. They conclude with the intended action, and then finally take their lives in their hands by affixing their signatures forever to this finalized document. 

I find it curious that, having gone through so many committees and a final skilled edit, that a phrase like "and the pursuit of happiness" survived the cut. 

It seems rather modern, don't you think? The right to life and liberty were both fairly recent, compared to most of world history when the divine right of a monarch was to take whatever he wanted, including your land, your children, your wife, and your life, and to tell you what to do. 

But when in the course of history has an entire population claimed the right to the pursuit of happiness?

Note that it isn't a right to "be happy." It isn't about an emotion. It is about the "pursuit of happiness", the ability to determine what is important in your life, to determine your own path, to achieve the things you want, to provide for your family if you have one, to work and earn wealth, to create a legacy that has nothing to do with a title or a station or stuff.  

I wonder how many of us are living up to this part of the Declaration.

Recently I overheard a conversation at work about one of the high-level managers. Apparently his wife is a writer who has published several romance novels and is doing quite well at her craft. He was quoted as saying that as soon as she reached a certain quota of sales, they would be set and he could leave his job. He's a pretty big muckity-muck, so this revelation was rather surprising.

"Isn't he happy in his job?" someone asked.  

"Is anyone?" was the reply, accompanied by a resigned sigh.

I could hear the weight of the world in that answer. The weight of a mortgage, car payment, and insurance. Of bills for groceries, cell phones, and satellite TV. Of tuition, club dues, college savings, Disney vacations, and Christmas . All things we think we need. All things we think we deserve. Few of which improve our existence, enhance our lives, or validate our pursuits as happy.

I am so thankful for the sacrifices made by the bold men and women who founded this country. I am thankful for the work and dedication and foresight it took to get us where we are. It has been an imperfect path. It is still imperfect. We stumble down it as best we can. Although I sometimes wonder about the "best" part. Perhaps we stumble with a bit too much mediocrity these days, without any sense of sacrifice, any sense of duty, any sense of true happiness at all.

My parents did not have it easy growing up, but were happy. They did not have it easy as adults and we did not have a lot of privileges or wealth, but they made a happy life for our family. Some people criticized them and declared that they were just lucky. My dad said they were right. And he spelled luck W-O-R-K. 

Living into our Founders' declaration of our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness takes a lot of W-O-R-K, work done for ourselves and for others. Work done sacrificially. Work done well. Work done with joy. Work done with an eye to the past and a hand to the future. 

As many of us are blessed to be off work for this holiday, let us not forget why we celebrate.  Regardless of how we came to be here, it is a privilege to live in this country, a right that we must claim, and a duty to do more than just eat and drink a lot and indulge our pyromaniac tendencies. As fun as that is.

I’ve been up working and writing since 3:00 am. But now for the first time in days, the sun is shining through my living room window and making me smile. Please excuse me while I go pursue some happiness. Have a safe and happy Independence Day!

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