As we continue to fight for our freedom, we must not forget that each of us is also individually imprisoned by a set of psychological chains every bit as oppressive as the institutional ones that have historically been the focus of our collective attention.
The history of the United States of America is one of both oppression and freedom from oppression. Consider the national holidays. Independence Day on July 4 commemorates the colonies’ declaration of independence from England. Presidents’ Day, which now honors all U.S. Presidents, was originally established to remember George Washington who led the colonies in their fight for independence. Both Memorial Day and Veterans Day honor those who fought in the name of freedom. MLK Day marks the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who led the civil rights movement and fight for racial equality until his untimely death in 1968. Even Labor Day commemorates the efforts of workers and unions to challenge the oppressive working conditions of the late 19th century.
Last week, this country added another important national holiday to mark the ongoing fight against oppression, when the Congress passed and President Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, which will grant every federal employee a day off to commemorate June 19, 1865, the day the last enslaved people in Galveston, Texas learned they were finally free. The Act is yet another step towards the dismantling of the structures, hidden and visible, that keep the original promise of this country from being fully realized. Much work, for sure, remains to be done.
As we continue to fight for our freedom, we must not forget that each of us is also individually imprisoned by a set of psychological chains every bit as oppressive as the institutional ones that have historically been the focus of our collective attention. The ability to freely lead and live and love is a byproduct of our willingness to see and dismantle the walls that we have mentally constructed. We possess the keys to unlock the prison doors of our own minds. This is what I believe author Ursula K. Le Guin meant when she wrote, “The prisoner is the jailer’s jailer.”
I learned this first-hand from the men inside Folsom Prison. Imprisoned within the concrete walls of the prison itself as well as the broader institution of American incarceration, these men were, in many ways, more “free” than anyone I had ever met. They taught me that real freedom can be found in taking responsibility for examining my own thoughts and beliefs. And in freely choosing a set of beliefs that truly serve me and others. I witnessed and experienced with these men more forgiveness, love, and authenticity than anything in the outside world.
Like most things of complexity, we must continue to fight for both structural and psychological freedom. One without the other will never be sufficient.
For the backstory on the amazing 92 year-old woman who walked from Texas to Washington D.C. in her quest to make Juneteenth a national holiday, check out this story in Blavity.
Corporate courage is woefully lacking today. For an exception to this, listen to Sam Harris’ conversation with Basecamp CEO Jason Fried, appropriately titled “Corporate Courage.”
My experiences inside Folsom Prison were part of a program led by the non-profit organization Inside Circle. The work of this program is featured in the highly acclaimed, award-winning documentary The Work. I highly recommend watching it. I also write about this experience and the subject of forgiveness in Chapter 5 of my book.