Extreme Independence and a Crisis of Authenticity
Interdependence and authenticity are related
I remember being 8 years old and my mother sending me next door for a cup of milk. We were making macaroni and cheese, and finding ourselves out of milk, why not just borrow from a neighbor instead of hopping in the car? As a result of many small interactions like that, I ended up knowing my neighborhood pretty well. Today, I do not quite have the same sort of local community. My friends are more spread out, and as a result we operate very autonomously. We don’t really reach out to friends to help us pick up a car at the shop, we don’t get help from the neighbors watching Ellie when we go out to get groceries. I think of this as “extreme independence,” and with it has come a loss of authenticity.
When we are extremely independent, we don’t have to rely on others. But it is precisely in relying on others that we are seen and known as authentic human beings. Brene Brown says, “We’re hungry for people who have the courage to say, ‘I need help.’” Extreme independence, isolation and inauthenticity all go together, for it is a small step from “I can’t trust you to handle me as I am,” to “I don’t need you.”
What is an alternative? I like to frame it as healthy interdependence. Whereas “independent” means the opposite of dependent, “interdependent” acknowledges our dependence on not just one but all others. While feeling dependent disempowers me, and independence grabs back that power at the cost of feeling isolated, interdependence brings me into relationship with everyone I meet.
We are all dependent sometimes
Recently we set up a birthday dinner for my wife, Dana. We had a pretty big group, and it took some engagement with the restaurant staff to coordinate the food orders. It shouldn’t be too surprising that they were helpful; after all, we are paying them to be helpful. But it was when someone showed up with a bunch of flowers and I wanted to arrange them on the table for Dana that I noticed the difference between independence and interdependence.
When I was in an “independent frame of mind,” I set about to make the event go smoothly, and I saw it as the wait staff’s job to help me do so. There’s something disconnecting about having money in my pocket: it gives me a sense of entitlement, that so long as I pay for their services, I am justified in expecting them to serve me. But when the bouquet of flowers arrived, suddenly I needed a vase. It’s not part of the waiter’s job to provide vases for flowers brought in by customers. As I approached the waiter with this request, I could feel an uncomfortable feeling: the feeling of actually needing his help. I couldn’t rely on our business relationship to solve my problem, I had to develop an actual relationship.
I ended up talking to the bartender, who didn’t have any vases. Our eyes met and I explained what I was wanting to do. He dug around in his cabinets and stood up a moment later with a carafe. It seemed like it might work, so I asked if he would mind filling it up with water. Even with a busy bar needing his attention, he obliged, and a few moments later we had a beautiful array of flowers adorning the table for my wife’s birthday. My wife loves flowers.
Healthy interdependence also makes us feel less isolated
What if it was something even more personal? What if an article of clothing breaks and a safety pin is needed to hold onto your attire? What if your child has an accident and needs a plastic bag for a change of clothes? Suddenly you are not in the usual business relationship. You need help, and that comes most readily when you connect personally. Can you imagine going to the wait staff and saying “I demand a safety pin!”? Even when we are paying customers, we are dependent human beings at the same time.
I see healthy interdependence as compatible with autonomy and self-sufficiency. It’s not about forcing yourself to be more dependent on others. It’s about simply recognizing when you are dependent, when you do need something, and being honest about that vulnerability. None of us is immune to the world, we all have times when we need others. Opening ourselves to relying on others is not only just honest, it helps us remedy the sense of isolation that underlies our modern society. Healthy interdependence allows us to discover our authentic selves.