11/29/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Life, Liberty, And The Pursuit Of Meaning

The introduction to the Declaration of Independence contains the following words: "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." Indeed, these are powerful words for they help to establish a platform upon which all democratic societies may be built; not only that found in the United States of America.

In no way, then, do I intend to marginalize the inherent value and practical significance of these words by suggesting that they should be modified. Let me propose, however, that "true freedom" in a democracy cannot be found in, nor can it rest solidly upon, a foundation comprised only of "unalienable Rights," no matter how well intended. I even would go so far as to say that, at least within the USA in the 21st Century, the expectation of "Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" as unalienable Rights has overshadowed, if not totally ignored, an important corollary of true freedom and participatory democracy--Responsibility. Let me explain.

The notion that responsibility is necessary for participatory democracy has deep roots and can be traced to Ancient Greece where the rights and responsibilities of citizenship were not taken lightly. The fundamental relationship between responsibility and true freedom also has a history that, among other things, should remind us that freedom is not something that should be taken for granted or about which we should ever become complacent. On this point, the world-renown Viennese psychiatrist and philosopher, Viktor Frankl, warns us that "freedom threatens to degenerate into mere license and arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness."

And even though Dr. Frankl enjoyed his time spent in America and admired a great deal about it, he was not shy about criticizing the popular understanding of some cherished American values, such as our notion of freedom. He took exception, for instance, to what appeared to be a commonly-accepted view of equating freedom with a license to do virtually anything that one wants. On the contrary, to Dr. Frankl, freedom without responsibility is an oxymoron. That is why he liked to say that "the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast should be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast."

True freedom, in other words, is not "just another word for nothing left to lose," as the late singer Janis Joplin once tried to have us believe. On the contrary, the word implies that we have everything to lose, especially if we don't take our role in a democratic society seriously. It is a fundamental value that must be cherished and protected by each and every one of us. And this necessary pre-condition of democracy can only--and will only--exist if we hold ourselves, and our fellow human beings, responsible. Like the lessons learned from Dr. Frankl, let us all benefit from the wisdom and experience of Nelson Mandela, who ends his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, with the following words: "But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended."

Dr. Frankl, I should point out, was also critical of the popular understanding of the phrase "the pursuit of happiness" in the Declaration of Independence. For one, he felt that it is wrong to be concerned only with pleasing oneself to the exclusion of others. Moreover, he views the pursuit of happiness as being misdirected and offered what I would call the pursuit of meaning as an alternative:

"Don't aim at success--the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one's dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it." [Emphasis Added]

Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Meaning. To be sure, these words suggest more than "unalienable Rights." It's now time, especially in light of next week's elections, to listen to freedom's cry and assume the responsibilities, both individually and collectively, that come with it.


You can find out more about Dr. Alex Pattakos, author of the international bestselling book, Prisoners of Our Thoughts: Viktor Frankl's Principles for Discovering Meaning in Life and Work, in his HuffPost Bio and at Contact Alex at: