“You probably shouldn’t have done that,” I comment as a friend brags to me about how he ate all sorts of junk food while he was terribly sick in bed.

“Why not?” He asked. “It’s a free country…”.

I shake my head and sigh.

A free country. As I write, basking in the last few moments of daylight streaming through the window by my desk, I think back to how many times I’ve heard people excuse their actions because of where they live. ‘I can do anything I want; it’s a free country.’ Probably these words and the irritating tone of voice that comes with them are familiar to most people. I’ve always had a strange feeling whenever someone says this. It’s because I want to interrupt the other person, explaining to them: ‘That’s not what freedom means! There’s so much more to freedom than what you see it as.’ However, interrupting in that way probably wouldn’t do the job. Is it likely they would listen to me? Or even care? Probably not. So I have to satisfy myself with telling my paper and pencil and hoping that they might tell someone else.

Anyway, I’m here to break the news: It’s not a free country. At least, not in the way that you’re thinking of it.

Freedom does not mean you can do anything you want. It does not mean you can take anything you like and escape the consequences. It does not mean you are entitled to everything, just because you exist. Freedom does not mean you are privileged to have and do anything you want. Freedom means the path is clear for you to work hard and gain those privileges.

 Freedom means you are responsible for your own happiness. Not the government. Not your best friend. Freedom means that no one but you is in control of your future.

It means that if you work hard, nothing can stop you from rising.

It means that you can choose good or evil, but that you can’t escape the consequences of either. It means that you can choose how you live. However, freedom doesn’t save you from yourself. You are free to make a wrong choice, but you are not free from the consequences of it.

But it’s more than just that: freedom is also about being able to learn from a wrong choice, get up from your fall, and try again. Freedom consists of all of this.

And this is what so many people get wrong. When they say freedom, they don’t really mean freedom.

My skeptical side immediately questions: ‘Is it really such a big deal? Let them think what they want to think; do you really have to get so worked up about it?’

My reply: definitions are how we see the world. The sky is blue because that’s what we’ve been told all our lives (most of the time, the sky is a color other than blue). What I think of when I hear the word ‘chair’ is different than what my friend thinks of when he hears the same word. We see and act according to the definitions that we sub-consciously have for everything we come in contact with. Our definition of freedom really does make a difference, because it changes how we value the ideal. It changes how we appreciate freedom and how much we are willing to give up to retain it. Knowing exactly what freedom is increases appreciation and desire for it.

My friend thought he knew what freedom meant—the entitlement to do anything he wanted. However, true freedom is not an entitlement. It is a pathway—and a responsibility—to aim for perfection in an imperfect world. Yes, we do live in a free country. But it’s a different sort of freedom than what we think at first. Only when we understand what freedom really is, only then can we truly be free.