Independent Community Members
We admire people with private pools and planes, who produce their own food, or own their own islands. We celebrate them for their ability to function independently. However, that same independence can be a double-edged sword. When not reflected upon, can work against our need for something much more powerful: connection.
Mindless independence too often equates to separation, because we fail to understand its true significance. We assume, that to be independent is to not rely or being relied on by others.
What does does this definition imply? Let’s begin with the positive:
(+) To strive for independence is a survival mechanism. As we increase our independence, we increase the certainty with which we feel we will be able to fend and provide for ourselves. However, cooperation is also a survival mechanism, and the two needn’t be mutually exclusive, but we’ll save that for later. As independent individuals, we reduce the extent to which others have control over our happiness and safety. This results in increased personal responsibility, efficacy, and ability.
(-) At the same time, blindly seeking independence can work against community, romantic commitment, friendship, and other forms of meaningful interpersonal connection. As we increasingly see ourselves as separate, our relationships become competitive, particularly when resources are scarce (whether those be physical resources such as food or intangible resources such as recognition or power). We begin to focus more intently on satisfying our own interests and fail to care for those of others. We begin to feel as though there is no link between their success and ours.
What happens when we reduce our reliance on others and minimize the number of people relying on us, is that our in-groups shrink. The people we associate with, care for, and believe in, become fewer. This makes our worlds darker and scarier. We slowly cease to look outwardly, recognizing the individuals around us. This reduces our opportunities to see hidden similarities with others, beyond age, race, or gender, that build community. So, independence, while important, must be pursued carefully.
As we seek to increase our own security, we must do it in ways that don’t harm or detract from the lives of those around us.
As we seek to be responsible for ourselves, we must also take responsibility for our roles in the lives of others.
As we hone our skills and abilities, we must practice them in a way the builds connection and benefits community.
Reflecting on the delicate relationship between independence and community is essential to finding a healthy balance between the two. Our communities encompass all of individuals that exist in the social spaces we frequent. These include both our perceived friends and foes.
1) The first step towards balancing independence and community is realizing that complete independence is a myth. We are all active participants in massive interdependent social systems that meet our needs and desires (providing food, shelter, entertainment, education, etc.). These systems, comprised of individuals, groups, and institutions, enable us to function in modern society. In addition to social systems, our interactions, relationships, and experiences (all dependent on others) shape our lives and self-image. So believing that we’re disconnected, self-made, or truly self-reliant is simply a refusal to recognize the larger reality.
That our world, inevitably and infinitely extends beyond our individuality.
2) Once we move beyond the notion that total independence is possible or desirable we can shift our focus towards cultivating the positive effects associated with independence while also honoring our interconnectedness. Our goal can move from trying to be better individuals in isolation, towards trying to be better individuals within groups. We can begin thinking critically about what aspects of self-reliance are necessary and when we should rely on others.
Think about completing a group project at work. While we, as independent individuals may be able to complete the project ourselves, sacrificing control and distributing portions amongst the group is likely to both yield better results, and foster a more productive team. This doesn't not mean that individuals aren’t independently responsible. It simply appreciates that the project is larger than any individual contributions. Life is also a big group project.
This understanding requires us to temper our search for self-reliance with a little uncertainty. Distributing responsibility and control is difficult, but necessary to building strong relationships and close communities. This could be called reliance with others (meaning relying on and being relied on). When we rely with, we build trust. When we build trust, we feel secure, open, and collaborative. For some, relying with may entail contributing to a community garden or potluck dinner. For others, it may mean being a member of a military unit or fire department.
What’s important is that we feel able to distribute trust and build community by connecting.
Even a small shift in perspective towards a balanced level of independence and interdependence, can open the door to a larger shift in how we view the impacts of our actions on others. When we understand that we’re inevitably part of a bigger picture, we realize that none of our actions exist in isolation. We begin to wonder how far the effects of our behaviors reach and whether our daily actions truly align with our beliefs.
Suppose we order a sandwich online. Do we think only about what type of sandwich we would like, or do we extend our thoughts to whether or not our family or roommates are also hungry? Do we consider whether or not the delivery company is treating its workers fairly, or whether the factory or farm providing the ingredients is operating responsibly? Do we understand that by taking any small action, we become a cog in a large machine? Do we appreciate that as a cog, we are partially responsible for both the problems and solutions that machine creates?
The answers to these questions are influenced by how far our feelings of connection and community extend. Simply put, feeling part of a community, whether it be a family or global network, makes us feel as though the world is about more than just our own well-being. This feeling is integrated into the decisions we make in a million different ways, each reflecting our feelings of empathy and connection to others.