What do we really mean when we call ourselves independant? Are we truly self-sufficient, or simply a heavily dependant individualist? Let's explore. But first, we'll define independence as the extent to which we rely on the external world to meet our needs.
This definition is critical to avoiding the common pitfall of considering independence to mean only financial independence, prioritizing the idea of not relying on other people for money. Conflating these two definitions fails to appreciate the fact that money is far from our only need, and other people are not the only thing on which we can rely. When we focus exclusively on financial independence, we consider independent people to be those who can afford to be taken care of, rather than those who can care for (themselves and others).
In reality, these individuals are often equally as dependent on their caretakers (whether they be cleaners, restaurants, or drivers) as those who depend on their community, government, church, or family. The difference isn’t their level of independence, but rather the mechanisms supporting them. Mistaking wealth for independence only makes us increasingly helpless as we slowly lose the ability to cook for ourselves, clean for ourselves, groom ourselves, transport and navigate for ourselves, and entertain ourselves. We both celebrate and sacrifice our independence simultaneously, becoming heavily reliant on the massive industries and systems supporting us.
Realizing that we’re all interdependent tells us that claims of independence are often actually expressions of individualist values. Such claims don’t necessarily express a level of self-reliance but rather a value for the individual over the collective. This nuance shows that we can have very self-sufficient, capable collectivists who recognize and leverage their interdependencies, or dependent individualists who deny their interdependencies while promoting self-interest.
Either of these individuals may be described as independent in their everyday lives, despite the fact that there are significant differences between them. Dependent individualism, at its worst, means tacitly refusing to take responsibility for the well-being of those around us.
Connection to others is an essential tool in cultivating self-sufficiency while maintaining interdependence. It does this by leading us to place value in our communities and take responsibility for their health and well-being. This can transform us from being individualists, overly dependent on commercial solutions to simple problems into self-sufficient community members. Community and connection must both be considered a part self-sufficiency because they are necessities to our individual mental well-being and health. We need them for our survival and happiness.
The lines between individualism, collectivism, independence, self-sufficiency and reliance are blurry. They should be. Sharp separations and universal truths are typically asserted for the sake of argument rather than understanding. To understand, we instead need to see that these are simply words we use to describe complex and overlapping sentiments.
As individuals, we can exist within collectives and within communities. Similarly, it is our position in our community that allows us to maintain our individuality.
Self-sufficiency allows us to productively and meaningfully rely on others without being overly burdensome. Simultaneously, understanding our inevitable dependence on others means that we must realistically consider the ways in which we take care of ourselves through connection. We must rely on, show gratitude towards, and reciprocate those who enable our survival. There is no lone individual nor is there an absolute community; no one lives in a vacuum, nor does anyone sacrifice all personal responsibility. The challenge we face is to understand the complexity of these ideas and their unique implications so that we can begin to use this new understanding as motivation to connect, grow, and come together.