Self-Reliance and Interdependence

For many people the work place is a competitive arena where people carve out their territories as a way to gain, define, and hold power. American culture encourages people to be self-reliant, to do things on their own. We want to be able to think for ourselves and know we can make our way on the earth. We also want to be able to let other people do things for themselves so they can learn the strengths and abilities they wouldn’t know they had without putting in the effort to try things on their own. American poet, Walt Whitman in Leaves of Grass tells us,
“Not I, nor anyone else can travel that road for you.
You must travel it by yourself.
It is not far. It is within reach.
Perhaps you have been on it since you were born, and did not know.
Perhaps it is everywhere – on water and land.”

Last week, I experienced something very different, however. Two people I worked with asked me to help them out. I did so, and afterwards, they found success, but I also realized how happy it made me to know that I had something I could give them. Their dependence on me to meet their need affirmed my sense of purpose, made me feel loved, happy, and deepened my sense of belonging. Often, we tend to think that asking people for something might burden them–we should be able to do things on our own. Maybe it’s also a good thing to recognize that asking someone to help us can allow that person to give something he or she might be hoping someone recognized they had and wanted to share.

There is a lot of loneliness in this world. One in 10 people in Britain are lonely, says Vanessa Barford in her BBC article, “Is Modern Life Making Us Lonely?”   Loneliness can be triggered by big life changes or ill health. We lose our old ways of living, and the things that grounded us are removed. We fall out of balance and feel lost, alone. If one in 10 people in the UK feel lonely, it’s a good bet that they are not the only country this way.  Jane Dutton, business and psychology professor at the University of Michigan has been researching organizations that nurture inspiration and productivity, and “found that employees who’d experienced compassion at work saw themselves, their co-workers, and the organization in a more positive light,” (Greater Good, Compassion Across Cubicles) It’s true that some people prefer to be left alone and to learn things completely by themselves and it’s good to be able to discern this. It can also be true that doing things with and for others,letting others depend on you, to learn from you, can be a wonderful gift. Looking outside of the workplace into the broader areas of life, we might find that even just our presence with someone can be a way of giving that allows a relationships roots to grow, and happiness to blossom. We don’t have enough people in this world who are there to remind us that our presence–our being with them–is as important as what we do.

Relationships require allowing ourselves to become mutually interdependent. This interdependence can allow us to find ourselves in new ways, even find new freedoms. Commitments to a job, a place, a person can be viewed as something that confines us in the sense that by choosing one thing, we can’t always choose something else. But commitments aren’t merely limitations, they are a path that shapes us and carries us into a deeper understanding of ourselves–as any practice we take up can do. If you find that you’ve committed yourself to a job in a big city that makes it difficult for you to go out of doors, for example, it can be an opportunity to renew yourself in other ways. You can learn to draw, make things out of clay, or take up an instrument. You can find your way to new things and can continue to grow. We can change and open new doors, explore new rooms of being together. Mary Oliver, in her poem, “The Summer Day”, says,
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Circumstances lean in to us in ways that will make us want to move in a new direction and find new ways of being, and we can go there in relationship with others, as well as by ourselves.

2 thoughts on “Self-Reliance and Interdependence”

  1. Wise words. The other part is just recognizing all the people who help us each day when we don’t even ask.

    1. We are surrounded by a throng of people every day who make our lives possible. If we take a moment to think about it, we will find there is so much to be thankful for, and the world will seem a bit more human too. I think of that now when traveling the subway here in London, how the train drivers work in the tunnels all day and lack light and how the serve so many people yet their faces are never seen or known.

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