A Different Type of Independence: A July 4th Reflection

The Difference Between a 20-, 40-, and 60-year-old
"Do you know what the difference between a 20-year-old, a 40-year-old, and a 60-year-old?" my dear mentor, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, once asked me.

His response was startling:

The average 20 year-old is occupied with the question: 'how can I fit in society?'; this is expressed in the way he dresses, behaves, and even speaks. But the 40-year old realizes, albeit a little late, that this question is futile. So he says to himself, 'I don't care what people think anymore; I just want to be my own, independent person.' After 20 years of trying to be his 'own independent person,' the 60-year-old concludes, with deep regret, that no one was looking at him in the first place.

Two Types Of Independence
Wise words, from a very wise man. Perhaps, the wisest in our generation. But what does it mean "to be our own, independent person"? In that vein, and in honor of July 4th this weekend, what does the word "independence" really mean?

There are two types of independence: The first type is the one defined by Google, Webster and our modern-day society, as "freedom from rules and outside control." Whether we are 40-year-old or not, many of us still strive to achieve this type of independence. We want to speak the way we want, dress the way we want, act the way we want. Simply put, we are who we are, and that is the way we are determined to be, without reserve.

But there is a second type of independence: if the first type is defined as "freedom from rules," this type is defined as "freedom with rules." But how can that be? Aren't rules restricting? Don't they suffocate independent and free spirits?

Malcolm Muggeridge, the former editor of the British Punchmagazine, was once asked what drew him to reconnect to his Christian roots, and incorporate religious observances in his life. "Any yachtsman knows," he replied, "that in order to enjoy the freedom of the high seas, one must become a slave to the compass."

Creating A 'Statue Of Responsibility'

How true. Freedom without direction leads to confusion, and independence without rules creates chaos. That is why children need rules in order to grow, and adults need a compass in order to navigate the turbulent waves of our world. In the words of our Talmudic Sages, "There is no one as independent as the person who is immersed in the study of Torah (Ethics of our Fathers Chap. 6)." For the Torah provides guidance in the complex maze of life. And it imparts clarity in our globe's stormy seas of distraction and confusion.

When the famed author and psychoanalyst Prof. Viktor Frankl visited America in the 1960's he wisely recommended that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented with the Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast, because, in his words, "liberty without responsibility cannot endure." Similarly on this 4th of July, let us commit to creating a 'statue of responsibility' in our lives, with a responsible stance, a focused mind, a directed heart and a committed hand of loving deeds.

And then, whether we are 20, 40 or 60 years old, we will never regret -- and forever cherish -- that which we are, and that which we do.