Independence. There are so many experts out there telling us how important it is to be independent. Babies should be independent and able to self-soothe. School aged children should be independent and able to do their schoolwork on their own. Teens should be independent and able to make decisions about their health on their own. Twenty-somethings should be able to be financially independent and live on their own. The elderly should be able to live independently (alone), with as little help as possible for as long as possible. Independence, referring to the ability to take care of oneself, is certainly a desirable quality, and is linked to high self-esteem. We feel good about ourselves when we can do something on our own. However, it seems to me that we have, as we do in so many things, taken this to an extreme. There is so much talk about the need for independence that we seem to have forgotten that we are mammals, and by our very nature we are social animals who depend on the group for our survival.
Independence is defined as freedom from outside control or support. The question is, from a human perspective, is this independence truly possible? If it is, is it desirable? Complete freedom from outside control is a frightening concept to me. Could society function without traffic rules, health codes, sanitation codes, monetary regulations, car safety regulations? Would we really be better off without the Bill of Rights? We might argue regarding the degree of regulation needed, but (hopefully) no one is arguing that all laws should be abolished. Control, including self-control, is an important part of happiness. With each step towards self-sufficiency we take, a certain sense of accomplishment and contentment follows. Yet, very often, hidden behind that step toward self-sufficiency is the physical or emotional support from someone else that enabled that step to be taken. When a toddler takes a first step, the support of a hand is welcomed. A young adult recovering from an accident welcomes the support of a physical therapist. An elderly person welcomes the offer of an arm to hold to cross a street.
On a daily basis, I see the power of emotional support. A word of encouragement, a shoulder to cry on, a person to laugh with – all of these make a huge difference in our lives. With emotional support, people get through unimaginable tragedies – the death of a child, the devastation of war. They get through more common tragedies – the loss of a job, the end of a relationship, the loss of health. People who go through such things will often say that friends and family members enabled them to do so “just by being there.” When I see the power of such support, I question this movement toward the idealization of independence. Why would we want to encourage people to opt for independence, from freedom from support, when support is so powerful? Complete freedom from outside support separates us from each other and from our humanity and only adds to our pain.
So why is independence held out as such an important quality to achieve? I think, in part, it comes from a misunderstanding of the word dependence. Dependence refers to a quality or state of being influenced by another. Somehow influence has come to mean that we are not independent thinkers; that we do not think for ourselves. But being open to what others have to say is important; it allows us to grow. It allows new ideas to be introduced to us. The other “problem” with dependence is that it often refers to addiction and the overreliance on someone or something. So, people will encourage us to “never need anybody” and “you have to be able to take care of yourself”. We say these things but never ask why this needs to be so. We rarely question why it is considered better to be independent than to be able to live in the comfort of being dependent – of being able to rely on or trust in someone other than ourselves. Why is it considered unhealthy to know that we can count on someone else? We have created an ideal of independence and self-sufficiency that is both unrealistic and, in my opinion, unhealthy. We have come to think that any sign of needing others is a weakness to be avoided at all cost.
It seems to me that we need to recognize the importance of both independence and dependence. And we need to recognize that depending on someone, being able to depend on someone, is very different from being dependent on someone or something in a weak, needy, “crutch-like” way. Knowing we can count on each other is fundamental to our strongest relationships, and is part of the very essence of friendship and love. We need to recognize what we can do, and enjoy doing, for ourselves. We need to embrace the joy of doing for others. We need to appreciate the gift we give someone when we accept their support. We need to recognize that we cannot truly survive without the support of others. In reality, having someone we can depend on, count on, is the most important source of stress reduction that exists. Knowing we can call that friend to tell us what the homework is because we lost our planner, or give us a ride to school/work because we missed the bus or our car won’t start, or to share a joy, a heartache, a wish, a dream – these are the moments that matter to us. Isolation is not the goal, sharing is. I prefer striving for interdependence, which means “mutual dependence.” This phrase reflects a healthy balance between independence and dependence. It signifies a state of mind where two emotionally healthy people know they can take care of themselves, but choose to take care of each other as well. Mutual dependence reflects the ability to function with limited outside control or support along with a willingness to be open to the influence of another and a trust that you can rely on them. It takes courage to admit we depend on someone. It means we have to let down our guard, show our vulnerability. Mutual dependence means the other person does the same. No one holds back, attempting to gain power or control.
In the physical world, we recognize that when one installs a supporting beam, the entire structure is strengthened. Perhaps we would all be happier if we recognized that emotional support strengthens us as individuals and as members of our family and friendship network; it strengthens our humanity.
~ “Being vulnerable is the only way to allow your heart to feel true pleasure”
Bob Marley ~
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