Sunday, April 12, 2009

Rugged individualism

Despite the fact that the United States is a relatively young country, we still have myths about ourselves and our history just like any other culture. George Washington cut down a cherry tree. Betsy Ross sewed the first flag. The Pilgrims and the Indians were great friends. And on and on. Everyone knows that the Wild West was just like a John Wayne movie. And everyone equally believes in the virtue of being a rugged individualist. Most of these myths are harmless. After all what does it matter if Washington ever lied or not. But the last one, the rugged individualist can and does cause harm to some people.

I imagine that this myth could have come about as a way to make virtue of the fact that opening up new territories required some unique skill sets in order to survive and one of those would have definitely been self-sufficiency. When there are not too many humans in the neighborhood, you had better be able to take care of yourself. But how did this evolve into some sort of universalized virtue given that it really only applies in a select set of circumstances? One has to be self-sufficient only when one is isolated, otherwise all humans are interdependent with the other people in their lives.

Throughout our lives we are dependent, to one degree or another, on those around us. And we are fooling ourselves if we believe this is not the case. As children, we are dependent on others for everything in our lives. As we mature, the amounts and types of connections we have shift to accommodate our situation and needs, but we are never totally independent. There are some souls who consider themselves loners, but even they are not as independent as they might think. This gives rise to feelings of pity in most of us for the person that isolates themselves. In extreme cases, we begin to suspect a possible mental health issue in them.

However, we have an inconsistency in our understanding of individualism versus interdependence. Certainly, we think those who withdraw to be not quite right in some way. On the other hand, some in our society also cast aspersions on some for being "too needy." Often when those so labeled are only normally needy. It is as if we are somehow afraid that another person's open need of something will require a response from us. I think that this carries through to the contempt that some people show to anyone who is down on their luck or buried in a mess. More often than not, someone will blame the person who is unemployed for his unemployment whether or not they know if it was avoidable. If someone's finances have taken a hit, it must be their own fault, rather than the economy, our society, an illness or who-knows-what else.

I think that it is quite likely that this is spurred by personal fear. If someone openly acknowledges their own vulnerability, it makes us frightened of our own vulnerabilities. If I can blame your catastrophe on you, then I can feel a bit more secure that it won't happen to me. This is because I can be certain that I would choose differently than you and am thus safe from a similar catastrophe. It isn't a reasonable assumption to make in many cases, but we cling to it nonetheless.

The cold hard fact of the matter is that none of us can make it on our own. More than any other time in history, we are dependent on strangers for our daily needs. Since the industrial revolution, we have become less and less independently viable. Our food comes from who-knows-where. Our businesses are so interconnected that the failure of one component could lead to disruptions in the life of someone on the other side of the planet. And if we believe that we should make it all on our own, we are surely courting disaster. It is truly the case that if we wish to make it through whatever life hurls at us, we must support and be connected to others. For in doing that, we are not only helping them, we are helping ourselves.

1 comment:

Knitman said...

Well you know I agree with al you written. We are all NEEDY and it is not a sign of illness or co dependency to be NEEDY. Unfortunately, the Co-Dependency movement has made it seem that way.
We are all dependent. It is in it's degree that problems can arise.

I am dependent upon John and to a lesser degree others, to help me physically. I am also dependent upon him and others for mental health, the same as we all are, and for spiritual health etc Those who eschew all dependence and act solely upon their own guidance and belief cause immense pain and suffering.