The power of freedom and the privilege of responsibility

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Earlier this month, America celebrated Independence Day for the 244th time. The 4th July is held dear amongst Americans for its commemoration of one of the things we treasure most: freedom.

Freedom is something that has been fought for across the centuries and we continue to fight to get or protect today in a host of different ways. We have debated its meaning, its parameters in society and its implications. However, perhaps one of the more rewarding and challenging attributes of freedom is the responsibility that it also brings. That responsibility is something that’s cause for self-reflection, self-analysis and often requires us to look at who we are and what we do in a way that’s ultimately not always flattering.

Eleanor Roosevelt, the author of so many quotable quotes, once said:

“Freedom makes a huge requirement of every human being. With freedom comes responsibility. For the person who is unwilling to grow up, the person who does not want to carry his own weight, this is a frightening prospect.”

Covid-19 and the light it’s shone on the idea of freedom

The peculiar, devastating, challenging and downright mind-boggling turn that this year has taken so far with the advent of Covid-19, has shone a particular light on the concept of freedom. It has presented all of us with choices and responsibilities as individuals at home, in our local communities, as nations and as part of the global community. Every single person has had a role to play.

We have all had responsibilities to honour and choices to make for the physical, mental, emotional and financial wellbeing of ourselves and others. In the spider’s web of circumstances and choices we have had to make, knowingly or not, we have constantly been striking a balance between the freedoms we take for granted and the duty of care we have for those around us.

For example:

In the UK, where we do not have the capacity or the precedent for imposing Martial Law, when asked by your government to stay home, did you? Or did you bend the rules a little because what did it really matter if you popped next door to see your neighbour?

When face masks were advised but not compulsory in shops, and it was explained that whilst yours will not protect you but it will help protect other people from you, did you wear it just in case? Or did you not bother because you ‘know’ you’re ok because you have been at home and haven’t shown any symptoms, and they’re hot and uncomfortable, and you’re not going to be there for long anyway?

When your income dropped but you still had enough, did you stop paying those dependent on you entirely so you could squirrel a little extra away? Or did you try to keep paying them, even a bit, because you know that in reality if one domino falls, a chain reaction will follow, and you might just be able to do one small thing to help prevent it?

Or as the apocalypse descended and with the need to sterilise everything in the house, did you decide that your previous attempts to reduce the amount of plastic and chemicals in your life for the sake of the environment could take a backseat for now?

None of us are perfect

It’s important to remember with all of these things and the myriad of other choices we have to make day in and day out, that none of us are perfect. We react to fear, anxiety, greed and all the good things as well. The choices we make are very rarely totally right or totally wrong, but are the ones we make in the moment with the information we have at the time. We are lucky enough in the UK to largely have the freedom to choose what we do and how we react to situations. Are we far too quick to shout ‘gotcha’ when someone’s choices seem less than perfect when shone under a particular spotlight, without remembering that most peoples’ circumstances are a patchwork of grey areas.

Covid-19 has seen the best and worst of our natures. We have been in it together and celebrated a national sense of collectiveness that has arguably not been seen since World War II. However, we have equally been quick to rip people to shreds, try to catch people out and look for opportunities to criticise. Inevitably, both will continue, and perhaps that’s in the nature of things in order to maintain a sense of democracy and accountability. What many of us have noticed however, is that with time to slow down we have been able to reflect on who we are, what we value, what we’re frightened of and what we enjoy.

How we choose to move forward

It is glib to say that this time of reflection has made us realise what’s important because I am sure most people knew what they really valued in life before Covid-19. However, how we choose to engage with those things may have changed, either by choice or necessity.

You may decide, when faced with redundancy, to pause for thought rather than racing to replace it with a carbon copy of what you were doing before. You may have found that in not being able to get food deliveries from the big supermarkets, you have been able to support the local greengrocer and you want to continue shopping that way. Perhaps you have realised that although driving the car to work is convenient, the astronomical cost of fuel and the need for that daily exercise routine you never thought you would get into, now means you will cycle instead.

Perhaps you are also becoming painfully aware that to many low-income families life can be appallingly hard and will probably get harder. That for many the soft furloughing is becoming hard redundancy in the City of London and beyond. That the kids and students now face a seriously difficult period in their lives in both education and social development. That the fear of socialising still haunts many elderly people. These are hugely complex issues, not solvable by any three word strap line, no matter how well crafted or intended. Maybe those things will inform how you choose to move forward; they might even galvanise you into taking a more community led, or even political role, in order to make a real difference to our future?

As we move forward, we are still blessed with our freedom and the privilege of responsibility that comes with it; to one another, to the environment, to the economy, to the nation’s health. I, like many, am so incredibly pleased that businesses are getting the chance to re-open this month and that people can return to work, both in the City and across the country. That sense of relief is entirely underpinned by anxiety regarding another peak in Covid cases, nervousness around the way in which social distancing measures will work, and a general sense of wonder about what the future holds. All this I recognise I am doing from a position of relative privilege, and with that I think comes its own duty of a responsibility to help wherever one can.

As we all get caught up in the when, what, why and how of a return to some degree of normality, those behaviour changes that we had reflected on during lockdown hover like Banquo’s ghost. Were they the musings of individuals and a nation contemplating its own mortality? Or will they have a lasting impact?

Covid-19 has not gone away. However, lockdown did work in reducing the number of daily deaths in the UK from around 1,500 per day at the peak to three on 4th July. The future is yet to be seen.

We have our freedom, and we have the responsibility to use it well, especially if we are in a position of privilege. If lockdown has taught us anything, it’s that every individual’s choice to do one small thing can have an enormous collective impact. Surely, that’s the real power of individual freedom and the privilege of personal responsibility?