Monday, October 24, 2011

Happy Birthday, Miss Liberty!

Have you heard about Friday’s huge birthday celebration? The Statue of Liberty, one of America’s most iconic symbols, will officially be 125 years old. Designed by Frederic Bartholdi, the grand lady was dedicated on Oct. 28, 1886.

Growing up in New Jersey about 40 miles from New York City, I had numerous occasions to view the statue, though I’ve never stepped onto Liberty Island. In 2006 my wife and I passed the famed statue twice daily as we traveled by ferry to and from a friend’s home in Jersey City.

“Miss Liberty,” as she’s sometimes called, has always fascinated me. It’s partly because the statue in New York Harbor was one of my grandfathers’ first sights as they came from Hungary to the United States in the early 1900s. The statue stands just south of Ellis Island, where immigrants were processed upon arrival. What a vision she must have been for them as they anticipated forging new lives.

But it’s more than that. Since the founding of the United States, freedom has been foundational to our culture as is declared on the tablet in the statue’s left hand, measuring 23-feet, seven inches by 13-feet, seven inches. The tablet contains words from Emma Lazarus’s sonnet, “New Colossus”:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

We regard the word “liberty” as synonymous to freedom, basic rights, emancipation, the right to choose, independence. Unfortunately, I think another word has been added to this list in recent decades that never was intended: Entitlement.

When my grandfathers as very young men set foot on American shores for the first time, they didn’t regard themselves as “entitled.” No one owed them anything. All they asked for was an opportunity, the privilege of pursuing an honest living in exchange for an honest day’s work.

Both labored in steel mills in McKeesport, Pa., hard, unglamorous work, but provided for their families. Samuel Tamasy had two sons and two daughters; George Katona had three sons and five daughters. All became respectable, productive citizens.

I hope in days to come we can return to the roots of liberty, that people arriving on U.S. shores shall indeed be able to find and pursue opportunities, without expecting anything handed to them or insisting on a certain material lifestyle. In the Bible’s New Testament we find an admonition I believe has undergirded the American notion of personal responsibility and initiative: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10).

At the same time, let us not impede anyone motivated to work and achieve the satisfaction of building fruitful, meaningful lives. May the torch of liberty light their way.

Happy birthday, Miss Liberty!

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