On Freedom, Inalienable Rights and the Pursuit of Happiness

by Ashley on March 19, 2012

Give Way

Photo by Eastop, www.sxc.hu/profile/Eastop

Thomas Jefferson included a statement about “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” our inalienable rights, in the Declaration of Independence. These rights are not given to us by the nation; rather, they are natural rights, inborn, inherited as a result of being human.

As Americans, we also have certain legal rights, given to us by our government. For example, we have the right to vote, the right to a fair trial, and the right to bear arms. As a journalist, I am particularly fond of the First Amendment right to free speech. Lying isn’t protected, but truth, even when it hurts, is allowed.

And though it’s not specifically mentioned in the Bill of Rights, the government has determined (and nearly everyone who uses Facebook or Google will vehemently agree) that we also have the right to privacy. Enough people are up in arms (no pun intended) about information sharing and new privacy policies that it’s clear we Americans take our rights seriously and defend them zealously, sometimes to the death.

Now, let me back up for a moment and talk again about the right we have as human beings to pursue happiness. That can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. Very often, it means that as long as I’m happy, everything is dandy. The moment you start making me unhappy, I cry foul. After all, my rights have been violated!

The Debate

I could give you a million different driving examples, but I’ll refrain. Let’s try this one instead:

You’re in the checkout line at the grocery store with approximately half of aisles 3, 6, 7 and 9 in your cart. The line was three shoppers deep when you arrived, and you finally made it to the grimy conveyor belt with the surly cashier at the other end. As you start to unload, silently cursing your family for eating so much, you notice the person behind you has a jug of milk, a box of crackers and a coupon.

You pause, debating.

You got to the line first, so you have every right to check out first.

But because you’re a decent human being (or because the person behind you saw you looking and now you just don’t want to seem like a jerk), you (begrudgingly) ask her if she’d like to go ahead of you.

That wasn’t so hard, and it counts as your good deed for the day, so you can check that off the list.

And then you wish you saved your good deed for someone else because that person you so graciously, unselfishly, allowed to go ahead of you feels the need to pay with exact change. She’s digging out pennies from the depths of her Mary Poppins purse. Oh! and she might have another coupon, if she can just find it; she’s sure it’s in here somewhere …

Soon you’re fuming that that selfish cheapskate is taking her sweet time, taking advantage of your generosity and completely disregarding the favor you did her. You have things to do! Places to be!

Well, maybe no one else gets as irritated (and that’s an understatement) in the grocery store as I do. But I’m sure you can think of an example where you were trying to be kind and the other person did not respond as you hoped or expected.

But if we as Americans, as humans, have the inalienable right to pursue happiness, whatever that means to us, don’t we also have the right, the freedom, to give up the rights we defend so passionately if we so choose?

Here’s my point: Giving up your right to go first in the line also means you have to give up all rights associated with going first. How can you claim your karma points if you graciously sacrifice some of your rights, but you don’t offer up all rights associated with that sacrifice?

The Right to Hold a Grudge

Maybe the grocery store example was too easy. Let’s try a harder one:


If someone hurts us, many of us believe we have the right to hurt that person back as revenge. At the very least, we often believe we have the right to hold a grudge about that hurt.

Maybe we do, maybe we don’t.

But if you choose to forgive that hurt, you are giving up all rights that go along with forgiveness.

Like your “right” to hurt that person back.

Like your “right” to be angry about it later.

Like, and this is hardest of all, your “right” to hold it over their head in an argument days, months or years down the road.

Getting Personal

This is a touchy subject for me. I tend to be a big grudge-holder, and I really want to change that mentality. Not only do I want to change that attitude toward my loved ones, I also want to give up my “right” to hold my grudge against other people. Co-workers, neighbors, strangers – anyone who earns my ire.

Most of all, I want to remember that my happiness is not more important than anyone else’s. I often get pleasure from making someone else happy, even at my own expense. That could happen far more often if I were willing to give up all the rights associated with that expense.

THE BOTTOM LINE: The thing I value most in life is freedom. I don’t believe I have the right to infringe on other folk’s freedom, but I certainly don’t want them infringing on mine. But I’m beginning to realize that I also have the freedom to give up my “right” to anger, frustration and resentment if I choose. It’s my choice. I get to decide. And I can decide to give up that grudge.

How liberating.

What rights do you give up for the sake of someone else? Which are you holding back?


Hi Ashley: Maybe because I’m older and I have so many more life experiences LOL 😀 I find it much easier now to let things go.

What worked for me is thinking about the energy it takes to be angry, to seek revenge, to get frustrated – and all those other inalienable rights. 🙂

That sounds simple, but it took me a long time to acknowledge the wasted energy, and to accept the cause. The good news is it gets easier – either that or I’m worn out. 😀

I saw the real turning point when I was a road warrior, traveling 3-4 days/week, 50 weeks out of the year. I either had to let it go or be dead. Lord knows you see a lot of things to get ballistic over when you travel. 🙂

by Cathy Miller on March 19, 2012 at 2:43 pm. Reply #

Hi Cathy — I’ve found that one of my dear friend’s concepts has helped me a lot — I’m letting the other person control my emotions when I get angry or upset over something they’ve done. I completely give up my freedom to be happy in those situations. That has changed my attitude often! (And like you, my friend used to be a road warrior, so nothing bothers him on the road anymore.)

And yes, I think you’re right that it does get easier as I get older. In some ways, I’m grumpier, but in other ways, I let more things go than I used to. It’s just growing up 🙂

by Ashley on March 19, 2012 at 10:30 pm. Reply #

Random acts of kindness make me feel good… that’s why I do ’em.

I get ballistic over tech stuff and some driving stuff and when I get honest it’s because I get afraid – afraid the tech is beyond me, afraid I’ll get in a crash.

Grudges never work for me any more… I pray for them… truly. In my own kind of mostly Buddhist type of prayer.

by Anne Wayman on March 19, 2012 at 6:05 pm. Reply #

That’s the smartest advice, Anne: praying about grudges and other people who make me crazy. I’ve done that and it helps. I need to do it more often!

by Ashley on March 19, 2012 at 10:32 pm. Reply #


I admire your candor in sharing your struggle. But even more I admire you for your desire to overcome the barriers we human beings so often put between ourselves and others. The world is a better place for your personal effort but even more so from your sharing with others and inspiring us to do the same!


by Terri on March 20, 2012 at 9:33 am. Reply #

I hope that’s true, Terri. Thanks for your encouragement. Sometimes it’s hard to be this open and honest and naked, but if it helps me be a better person, or helps anyone else do their part too, it was worth it.

by Ashley on March 20, 2012 at 3:43 pm. Reply #

[…] do admit it changes your life, and that’s what I’m afraid of. You already know that freedom is extremely important to me. I would never give it up lightly. Sure, I have pets that I adore as children, but I can leave them […]

by The Meaning of Dreams « Give up the Good on March 26, 2012 at 2:28 pm. Reply #

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