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Today I wanted to talk about the Illusion of Independence. It has been carefully constructed by a lot of people over a long period of time. I would say that the start of the industrial age is when the first seeds were sown and it has since become a fast-growing weed that I have to beat back with a machete on a day-to-day basis.

The Illusion of Independence is exactly what it sounds like: it's the belief that we are completely independent, even though it's total and utter absurdity. Independence is celebrated, lifted up as a model of how we should try to be, and so of course we all scramble to identify as independent. Everyone from Beyoncé to the announcer on the hockey game is going to try to tell you that there is an opportunity to be independent, and you should take it.

And why am I even bothering to bring this up? Because it's dangerous to believe we're all independent. It's really, really dangerous, and for a few reasons.

The first (perhaps most obvious) reason is that it's a lie. We’re not independent. We are part of a larger system—many larger systems, in fact—that constantly impact our lives and the choices we make. If it's raining cats and dogs, you're probably going to move that picnic inside. You might even say that having that picnic is dependent on sunny weather. So it's crazy to pretend that we're the gods of our own little universes, and that nobody and nothing else has any influence on our lives. If you really, truly believe that, it seems like you're in for a lot of disappointment.

Perhaps the most scary reason it's dangerous is the reason it exists in the first place. We want to believe we're strong on our own. We want to believe we don't need anyone else. Why? Because that's what we're told is cool. We're told every day of our lives that being independent is the right thing to do. If you're still living at home with your parents, you're a loser. If you don't own the latest technology, you must be poor (and therefore unable to take care of yourself, which makes you a loser). There is a fast and furious consumer culture where we each have to have our own version of everything. Some people have even gone so far as to say that people who don't consume a lot to support the economy are bad people.

Have you ever stopped to think about why, living on a street with dozens of houses that each have lawns, pretty much every one of your neighbours has a lawnmower? Do they mow their lawn every day, three times a day? Probably not. I imagine that in 99% of the cases, a lawnmower will actually spend less than 5% of its life actually being used. So then why does every person have one? Because it's convenient. At least that's what the lawnmower manufacturer wants you to believe. It's easier than having to wait in line for your next-door-neighbour, Karl, to finish using his, and besides which, it's an imposition to ask such a thing of Karl. Because, after all, with how often Karl is using it, and how often you need it, the chances of you needing it at the same time are...what, maybe 1 in 10? Yeah.

This Illusion of Independence makes a lot of money for companies. It puts a matter of pride into being able to not rely on other people. In fact, it places shame on relying on other people. I don't know if you've ever had this happen to you, but I've asked friends to stay at their house and they've been shocked that I'd be so forward. Why? Because there's shame attached to asking for help. It's considered freeloading a lot of the time (nevermind that when I stay with a friend, they come home from work and a three-course meal is ready for them). The act of asking for help is shameful. After all, we need to be independent, or it’s assumed that we can't take care of ourselves and that’s shameful. Because, of course, we never need other people to take care of us when we get old, or when we need to have a surgery done, or when we need someone to bring us food in a restaurant...

Why is being served one thing and asking a friend for help another? Surely it comes down to independence. If you're being served, you give something immediate and tangible in return (paying for an old age home, covering surgery with medical insurance and paying a tip to the waiter). In other words, it's a service you pay for, because we live in a capitalist system. But when you ask your friend to give you a lift on their way to Montreal in exchange for a batch of their favourite cookies (because you're short on cash), that's shameful. Nevermind the enjoyment your friend will get from the cookies, nor the fact that you spent 3 hours making them, nor the fact that they cost you $10 in ingredients, only that you paid that money a month ago when you got your last paycheck. You're just freeloading, because there is no capital gain on their part.

And I can hear the choruses now, saying, "But if you weren't so cheap, you'd just take the Greyhound," or, "If you don't have money, maybe you just shouldn't go." But the thing is, it's not even purely financial. Independence is bad for the environment. Why would I take a Greyhound when my friend is going anyway and I can carpool? Everyone wins--they get cookies and I get to stick it to capitalism. Not to mention that both of us get good company and the chance to catch up with an old friend. And heaven forbid you should actually know that your neighbour's name is Karl, so that you can borrow his lawnmower, and he can borrow your electric mixer next time he makes brownies. Because heaven forbid we should keep an extra lawnmower and electric mixer from being sold, soon thereafter made obsolete, and then thrown into the landfill, when they’re spending most of their lives unused anyway. Heaven forbid we should keep virgin resources from being extracted from the earth, just so that you can know that the once-every-two-weeks that you mow your lawn can coincide with Karl's, and you won't be inconvenienced. Isn't that worth destroying our Earth? Isn't that worth mowing your lawn even as Karl is mowing his next door, and wondering to yourself what that guy's name is, if it's safe to let your kids play out front when he's around, and whether you should feel insecure about how much more independent he's able to be than you are?

The reality is that we do need to depend on each other. When a disaster hits, it's no wonder that close-knit communities are the ones that thrive. When the economic recession hit, co-operatives flourished, while large corporations took a serious hit. (Have you heard of Camino? It’s a Canadian co-operative that actually grew leaps and bounds during the recession.) The co-operative model works for a reason: people care. You have a stake in it, and you care about the people who are going to be affected, including your customers. There is a human element to it, the sense of being able to depend on each other, and it makes you stronger.

Activism would be a goner without people realizing that depending on other humans is important. When you band together, it's not a weakness; it's a strength. It's a strength to swallow your pride and go to the doctor early, so that he can detect that pea-sized tumor instead of the golf ball-sized one. It's a strength to be vulnerable enough to say, "Hey, I need a couch to sleep on," because it builds intimacy with that friend and two months later, when she's going through a breakup, she knows she can come to you for support, and you both know that she'll make it through. But of course corporations don't want you to think that way. Why would they, when instead they can be renting hotel rooms to you and selling expensive funeral services to your family while they're still in shock?

I probably cite Brené Brown's TED Talk a little too often, but she had a great point when she said this:

"We live in a vulnerable world. And one of the ways we deal with it is we numb vulnerability... The problem is...that you cannot selectively numb emotion. You can't say, 'OK, here's the bad stuff...I don't want to feel these. I'm gonna have a couple of beers and a banana-nut muffin.' [...] You cannot selectively numb. So when we numb those, we numb joy. We numb gratitude. We numb happiness. And then we are miserable and we are looking for purpose and meaning, and then we feel vulnerable, and then we have a couple of beers and a banana-nut muffin. And it becomes this dangerous cycle."
This idea of independence takes out connection. It takes out any idea that we might depend on others for things like genuine love, rather than a dependency that consists of some kind of tangible benefit. It makes our parents (before we leave home) into our most convenient landlords, rather than people who we actually genuinely love and want to be around. It makes our friends into people we can negotiate with, rather than actually giving and taking in a loving and genuine way. And it makes our neighbours into strangers, just so that we can destroy the environment.

We are not independent when we go to the grocery and buy our own groceries, rather than knocking on the neighbour's door and saying, "I totally forgot I was out of eggs--can I borrow one to make my biscuits?" It is an illusion that we're independent, ever, because the reality is that we're dependent on the grocery to be there, for us to be able to buy groceries. And in a despicable but really clever move, corporations have shifted our dependence over to them so that they can tangibly profit from it. But guess what? The corporations depend on the environment, whether they will admit it or not, and when we destroy our Earth, none of us will have anything left to depend on but each other.

If you have to rely on either a corporation or a human, it seems like the decision should be clear, but it's not for so many people. There is this assumption that corporations are more reliable, sturdier than humans. Costco will always be there, after all, and Aunt Maggie will pass away eventually. But we've been so effectively trained to think quantitatively, at the expense of thinking qualitatively. Sure, Costco might be around longer (if we want it to be, I might add, and only if we do), but try having a relationship with it. Just because Costco is measurable and Aunt Maggie isn't doesn't mean that Aunt Maggie isn't adding more to your life. Does Costco greet you with a genuine smile every time you visit it? Does it come to your birthdays, and press you close to its chest when you need a shoulder to cry on?

Perhaps more to the point, not realizing we're dependent is at best denial and at worst complete madness. Insisting we be independent of other humans while we don't even realize we're completely dependent on corporations and the economy makes slaves of us all.

The reality is: we need to rely on someone or something. If we don't decide for ourselves what that should look like, then someone else will do it for us.

This post is a slightly modified re-post from my personal blog. You can see the original entry here, and if you liked this post, you can also view more like it on my blog.

Originally posted to Lia Walsh on Mon Jun 24, 2013 at 11:55 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  As an ideology (11+ / 0-)

    this "independence" is known as "rugged individualism"  It's marketed heavily to the lower classes ("This here doggone pickup truck will make you ruggedly individual!") while the owning/ruling classes act in coordination and combination, with awareness of advancing their mutual class self-interests.

    Thanks for this diary, getting past the barriers that artificial "independence" impose, achieving at least certain mnimal norms of solidarity, will be necessary simply to preclude further defeats and rollbacks.

    "You may very well think so, I could not possibly comment." ~ Francis Urquhart, pragmatic political philosopher

    by ActivistGuy on Mon Jun 24, 2013 at 12:18:32 PM PDT

    •  Our stated goal is to create a more perfect union (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      On reflection that isn't speaking to support for "rugged individualism". Even if you take unions as a tool that makes the collective working class the equal of the ruling class that owns everything and sharing as equivalent to saying you don't really own anything if you can't give it away, unions and democracies make the individuals role in the decision making process relatively small, and monied special interests role relatively large.

      We claim to want equality for all rather than a plutocracy, an entitled 1% of people who can expect college educations, wealth, contacts and success to make life gentle, but in practice we all seem to be more motivated by ownership than by sharing.

       I like your framing of "artificial independence" as a corollary to "artificial intelligence", but for people like me a pickup truck is an essential survival tool rather than some statement of ideology.

      Maybe our certifications as college educated programmable and employable robots ready to go out and work for a living and accept all the roles, have families, be good providers involved in our communities isn't all inclusive and does constitute artificial intelligence, but then if real independence is dependent on our not being law abiding when the law is wrong, on our standing up as individuals, Snowden is not a bad example of that.

      Live Free or Die --- Investigate, Incarcerate

      by rktect on Tue Jun 25, 2013 at 04:42:20 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Thank you for writing this. (5+ / 0-)

    I'm particularly bad this way. I HATE having to ask for help. Every time I do, I have to force the words out. Because, after all, if you're asking, the other person can always say no, right?

    It's all about control. Admitting "I need help with X" implies that I don't have total control over my own life and fate and that is, apparently, is something that's far too terrifying for us in our comfortable Western world to contemplate.

    "We are stardust, we are golden, and we've got to get ourselves back to the garden." (Joni Mitchell)

    by Eowyn9 on Mon Jun 24, 2013 at 01:22:28 PM PDT

    •  Think of it this way (4+ / 0-)

      if you ask for help from your family, do you do things for them? If so, then asking for help is evening out that balance sheet. The same is true for friends. If you do for them, give them the courtesy of allowing them to do for you.

      American Television is a vast sea of stupid. -xxdr zombiexx

      by glitterscale on Mon Jun 24, 2013 at 03:56:01 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  check out (4+ / 0-)

      this very insightful research by an Australian PhD student about why it is so hard to ask a neighbor for a cup of sugar.
      Why Is It Harder to Ask Than to Give?

      Ecology is the new Economy

      by citisven on Mon Jun 24, 2013 at 04:31:08 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Insightful is definitely the word. (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        belinda ridgewood, worldlotus

        Thank you for sharing this article that, at least by all appearances, is somewhat less impressionistic and more academic than what I was able to write. It's very interesting to see someone who is studying these things to arrive at a similar place to where I did, though of course Rooney has the value add that she's equipped with the research background and terminology to discuss these topics with more authority.

        Really interesting read--thanks again for sharing!

    •  Control and independence could be linked? (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      belinda ridgewood

      It is definitely interesting to link the two, and I hadn't thought so much about control in connection with a sense of community. I suppose I see control as not having the most positive connotation, and so I do tend to think in terms of autonomy. As I mentioned in my post, to think we're totally independent (and I'd say this could be substituted for "in control") is a bit of an illusion, in my view. In control of the choices we make? Yes, in very large part. (And this, I think, is best described as autonomy.) Other things, on the other hand, can be very hard to control. It does require some vulnerability to ask for help, which, as Brown mentions, is a little scary, and this probably explains why it's just so difficult to do!

      In a sense, I would argue that we do actually have more control when we are dealing with human connection (rather than, say, interacting with corporations). If you feel the going rate for borrowing that cup of sugar is too steep, you can negotiate with Karl. If you feel like the grocery is charging too much for sugar, your options are pretty limited, unless there happens to be another grocery down the road that sells it a lot cheaper. When things become faceless, they also become much more difficult to influence unless there is considerable strength in numbers. (Which, again, ties back to building those personal relationships in many cases, often through depending on one another.)

      I'm not sure where I was going with this comment, but I am definitely now thinking about this. Thank you for the interesting comment. I'm going to chew on the control/independence relationship for a while!

  •  There is madness (3+ / 0-)

    in a culture that swings either too far one way or the other. The notion of independence can't be overpushed but we also need to feel free to be innovative and take our own direction. Jesus Loves You.

    by DAISHI on Mon Jun 24, 2013 at 03:48:37 PM PDT

  •  You make so much sense (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    jm214, liawalsh, worldlotus

    but sometimes, for a variety of reasons, we humans find it difficult to ask for help or a favor. But when we do, we get to experience the great pleasure that comes from the generosity of others, and those that are asked receive the immeasurable pleasure of giving. It's a mutually beneficial exchange that is life enhancing to all.

    'A civilization flourishes when people plant trees under whose shade they will never sit' Greek Proverb

    by janis b on Mon Jun 24, 2013 at 03:56:23 PM PDT

  •  There are cultures that practice the family (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    jm214, liawalsh, worldlotus

    plan in investing in businesses the younger generation starts because they themselves often got help from previous generations.

    Sharing things, doing things together, being a community is extremely important and healthy for us.

    American Television is a vast sea of stupid. -xxdr zombiexx

    by glitterscale on Mon Jun 24, 2013 at 03:57:48 PM PDT

  •  And this is quite off topic but anyone who thinks (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    jm214, blueoasis, OooSillyMe

    we have independence has not been reading the details of the Patriot Act and the recent NSA revelations. We are all viewed as little sub-cogs (not even cog-worthy)

    "Oh, I am heartily tired of hearing about what Lee is going to do..... Go back to your command, and try to think what are we going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do." Grant

    by shigeru on Mon Jun 24, 2013 at 04:05:55 PM PDT

  •  You get it. Congratulations! (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    muddy water can best be cleared by leaving it alone

    by veritas curat on Mon Jun 24, 2013 at 05:42:00 PM PDT

  •  I note you never used the word... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    worldlotus, OooSillyMe


    That's what gives this diary gravitas, because freedom is relative to independence but is not the same thing.

    "Liberty" isn't mentioned either. Because THAT is another critter as well.

    So what does this mean? Well, think of Life as a plane on a pivot which tilts in any direction. Maintaining balance requires giving and taking, moving weight in one direction to compensate for any weight in another. Circumstances keeps throwing rocks on top of my plane and I have to sacrifice some Liberty to be Safe/Balanced/Fed, etc. Freedom is the ability walk further from the pivot point without tilting the plane, ie, not suffering consequences for doing so.

    Independence is not being on the plane at all. A complete and utter illusion/delusion which the author states clearly.

    No one is free. No one is safe. Not all the gold in the world can save you.

    We are still ourselves no matter what.

    "Wealthy the Spirit which knows its own flight. Stealthy the Hunter who slays his own fright. Blessed is the Traveler who journeys the length of the Light."

    by CanisMaximus on Mon Jun 24, 2013 at 07:54:01 PM PDT

  •  The one thing I learned in the Peace Corps (7+ / 0-)

    and all the other volunteers learned as well, is that Americans don't know how to do community.

      When you go to these poor communities, where the electricity is only on for 6 hours a day, people spend their time talking to neighbors. Everyone gets to know everyone else. The kids play and eat in everyone else's house.

       And you know what? These people might have almost no possessions, but they are at least as happy, or happier, than most Americans. These people don't live in fear like Americans do.
       The idea of living next to someone, and not knowing them, is a weird concept.

      It's amazing how just visiting your neighbor, having them serve you coffee, and talking about the weather, can be such a rewarding experience.
       Next thing you know, people you don't know are handing you their baby without any fear. Suddenly you realize you are part of a community.

    “Wall Street had been doing business with pieces of paper; and now someone asked for a dollar, and it was discovered that the dollar had been mislaid.” ― Upton Sinclair

    by gjohnsit on Mon Jun 24, 2013 at 08:09:55 PM PDT

  •  Mowing lawns just for the neighbors approval (0+ / 0-)

    On my property I have some areas around my orchards and ponds I like to maintain as hay fields or meadow rather than let them return to woodland. In summer they are full of red, yellow, white, blue and purple wildflowers and around the edges are wild strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, blueberries and edible mushrooms for forage.

    Consequently I have a barn full of mowers and lawn tractors in various stages of disrepair and cannibalization that I have salvaged from the recycling. I recognize that I'm scavenging from the planned obsolescence of the corporate economy not from any sense of independence but more from necessity, having too much that requires my attention on my own place to have the time to go out and work for wages helping someone else. If I were a wealthy suburban person I would probably enjoy having the money to purchase tools that work right out of the box.

    I agree with you that we all have an illusion of independence rather than the actuality of it. I'm just as locked into the neighbors approval as the summer complaints even if my neighbors mostly are of the four legged variety. Having a few mown fields seems to work for most of my critters, possibly the deer and wild turkey that eat the blown down apples more than the coyotes and foxes; but I also maintain woodlots from which I harvest firewood that give my predators a place to do their thing as well. I don't mow every field every day but the shorter grass is easier to fight a fire in than the thickets. Its easier to cultivate for a garden and less likely to go back to jungle if you take a day off.

    Live Free or Die --- Investigate, Incarcerate

    by rktect on Tue Jun 25, 2013 at 05:26:59 AM PDT

  •  I have been saying this for decades.... (0+ / 0-)
    •  Help me out! (0+ / 0-)

      I've tried to find a similar post in your diaries, but I see that you don't post diaries on DK. I'm assuming it's on a personal blog or something? Perhaps this is a bit forward, but do you mind linking me to it? I'd love to compare notes!

      I, for one, would have been very glad indeed to read a post like this decades ago. I feel like it would have brought on my "aha!" moment much sooner, and that's never a bad thing.

      Thanks for your comment!

  •  My favorite undergrad professor, (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    liawalsh, post rational

    a man named Jack Schaar at UCSC, said once in a class that the Founders wrote the Declaration of Independence, but they neglected to write the declaration of interdependence.

    We need to recognize both and live within the tension they define.

    The GOP can't win on ideas. They can only win by lying, cheating, and stealing. So they do.

    by psnyder on Tue Jun 25, 2013 at 06:32:10 AM PDT

  •  I think you make a good point. But the next (0+ / 0-)

    question is "so what?."  

    It's beyond dispute that no one is truly, completely independent.  But what are the policy implications?  If a person succeeds in their chosen career, can they claim some "ownership" of their success?  What are the tax implications?  Is it wrong for me to be proud of my professional accomplishments because I got help along the way?  Are people who don't succeed completely absolved from responsibility for their failures?  

    It's one thing for me to acknowledge that my career success was possible because of a lot of help from other people.  It would be another to say that none of it was the result of my own hard work and ambition.  

    •  I'm not sure I know what you mean, but I'll try! (0+ / 0-)

      I'm not totally sure... Are you asking about policy (which I understand more as a system put in place by the government) or personal moral codes (which sounds more to me like what you're talking about)?

      As for policy, I tend (as an activist) to lean towards the thought that policy can be pushed for if enough of the public changes their way of thinking, but I'm not by any means an expert on the issue.

      As for personal moral codes, that is (I'd posit) much more of an individual thing, and I don't know that I'm in any position to prescribe a moral code for other people. I don't have their experiences and perspectives, after all. But what I will say is that there is a lot of power in knowledge, and I suppose the main goal of this article was for me to point to the idea that it's probably a very good idea to be self-aware enough to realize what it is you're depending on, and make an informed choice in that area. Based on my experience (and now this comment thread, also, through some courageous comments shared by our peers), it seems like a lot of people may mistake not relying on people with not relying on anyone or anything. And most dangerously, I would say, this happens not because of a completely conscious choice, but rather through lack of thought most of the time. It's something of a habit now. It's not really healthy, in my view, to cut off humans for the sake of depending more and more unconsciously on corporations, and that was where I was going.

      I don't know if this helps, but this is the best I could do based on my understanding of the question. Please feel free to clarify if you feel my answer was inadequate.

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