Most get by with a little help from others

HANOVER, N.H., (U-Wire) — Last Friday, I found myself sitting on a Vermont Transit bus headed home to Massachusetts and talking to one of Hanover’s summer conference visitors about a lecture given the previous day by a sociologist and economist on the topic of dependency. As the aspiring neurosurgeon sitting next to me on the bus recounted the highlights of the lecture, questions about the American obsession with the elusive concept of “independence” filled my head.
Our culture continually pummels us with both overt and subliminal messages of “independence” as one of the highest goods to be attained. From the time we are very young, we are raised to prize independence. One of the highest compliments a college student, particularly a young woman, might receive is that she is “independent.” Conversely, as we have seen from the rhetoric surrounding welfare reform, one of the harshest criticisms that can be leveled at someone is that she is “dependent.” Rarely, however, does anyone question what is meant by independence and dependence.
In our society, we often equate independence with responsibility and self-sufficiency. While having a strong sense of self and the ability to meet financial obligations is admirable, being truly independent and self-sufficient might be a less desirable and even an impossible goal. Very few people are truly independent and self-sufficient, nor should they be. On the surface, being a college student seems to be the epitome of independence — on a day-to-day basis, there is no one but ourselves for whom we are responsible, nor is there anyone on whom we can displace responsibility for meeting our needs.
However, as any college student will attest, in many ways we are far from being independent. Most obviously, we are not financially independent — at $34,000 a year for tuition, how could we possibly be? We also don’t live in a vacuum free of family responsibility. Watching friends pick majors and plan off-terms along with my own experiences — for example, my bus ride home this weekend to visit my grandmother — has provided me with enough evidence to write a thesis on the familial influence on students during the college years. During off-terms when we are away from friends and family, many of us realize our dependence on others for the intangible necessities in life such as love, friendship and emotional support.
This dependence is not particular to college students though. Human beings are social by nature; it would be unnatural for us to live as if we were emotionally independent of each other. In addition, we all possess different gifts and skills. As Plato asserts in “The Republic,” it is only when each person uses his skills for the common good that a society flourishes. Consequently, when we hear people idealize independence, we should question what actually is being promoted.
Recently, we celebrated the Fourth of July — our country’s Declaration of Independence. The historical occasion we specifically commemorate on this holiday is our country’s political separation from England, but our celebration encompasses a much broader theme of independence that pervades our nation’s history. It might be reasonably argued that the most profound social changes in our history resulted from whole communities working together. Yet the popular perception of American history is dominated by individuals acting alone. From the early pioneers heading west, to Neil Armstrong landing on the moon, the Americans that we most often see promoted as ideal are brave, frontiersmen, forging ahead alone into uncharted territory. The hero stories from our culture are all marked by strong individuals accomplishing great feats — Paul Revere riding into the night and spreading the alarm, Davy Crockett defending the Alamo and Johnny Appleseed planting a nation’s worth of trees.
In recent years, there has been an attempt to recognize a more-diverse set of leaders and heroes, but the emphasis of the more inclusive history still remains the same — how one hero independently made a difference in the world. Rarely in our stories do we focus on the communal efforts that actually created our nation.
Although our culture’s emphasis on individualism is not unique, it is hardly universal. In many other cultures, and even at other times within our own culture, people have been more communally minded and less focused on the individual. Extended families and the larger community play a much greater role in the daily life and decision making of an individual. The result of our individualistic culture is that the American emphasis on the communal good and the sense of solidarity among us are less than in many other cultures.
At a time when we are redefining what it means to be Americans, we should critically evaluate how our traditional emphasis on independence has affected our nation. Individualism disguised as independence is tearing our communities apart. We didn’t achieve political independence as individuals and we cannot expect to maintain a society worth celebrating if we insist on maintaining independence from our responsibilities to each other. Perhaps a greater challenge than obtaining independence, personally as individuals and politically as a nation, may be learning just the opposite — how to be mutually dependent on each other.
Christine Percheski’s column originally appeared in Fridays Dartmouth College paper, The Dartmouth.