The word independent has a lot of different meanings. Given my life, my current reality, and the passing of another 4th of July weekend, the varied meanings of this single word seem to resonate with me. Here are a few that I’ve been pondering…
• Politically autonomous; self-governing
• Free from the influence, guidance, or control of another or others; self-reliant
• Not determined or influenced by someone or something else; not contingent
Other phrases come to mind like, self-sufficient, self-supporting, not dependant, not affiliated or loyal to….and the list goes on.
So let’s talk politically just for a second and humor me on some of the meanderings of my brain. A little history: Columbus set sail on the ocean blue…yada yada…skip a bunch of years and there’s a “revolution”. People die, men come together and write some stuff down, they hide it in a tree in Connecticut (sorry I had to put that in there), and then this place that I am from, The United States of America, is now independent from England. We can even go on to say that the USA is independent from other nations as well. According to the definition, the US is “self-governing and politically autonomous.”
So I wonder, is this really true? Given the global reality, the way political decisions are made these days (I’ll give you this plutonium if you give me these guns and we’ll call it a day…then to fast forward 30 years…I’ll teach you how to vote and how to run a democracy if you continue to supply us with X, Y and Z for the rest of eternity), is this really independence or rather exercising a kind of control? Because as much as the US, or any other nation, claims itself as independent, there is still the reality of goods and services that needs to be factored into the deal. Plain and simple, when it comes down to it, the US NEEDS stuff…and really, we are DEPENDENT on other nations to sustain our life.
Anyway, I’m pretty sure this is not an original thought but it’s something I’ve been thinking about in relation to my own personal worldview.
One of my favorite authors, Henri Nouwen once wrote in his journal, “I love Jesus but want to hold on to my own independence even when that independence brings no real freedom.”
Keep this quote in mind when you read on. It will be very telling.
So then here’s me and here’s my confession…
I am an only child.
I know, hard to believe. Some may even find this shocking, but it’s true. And even though I don’t regularly show some of the common characteristics of being an only child, there are certain realities that even the best performer couldn’t mask. And at the end of the day, the people who know me most understand that being an only child is a part of WHO I am in the world.
So what are those characteristics….well, sometimes I can be selfish, I tend to see the world as ME and then everyone else, I’m pretty confident and live as if I know what I’m doing (even when I don’t), and the kicker, I live as if I am independent. Actually, I seek to be independent….self-governing, self-reliant, self-supporting, not contingent on another and certainly not dependant on another. But the actual blow of the kick comes when I believe that the things I do are done in a void. When I believe that I have done something by myself, that I stand alone in my thoughts and actions, my personal confidence is fed and the illusion of this cycle continues.
I wish I could say that this realization was figured out a long time ago and that I’ve nipped it in the bud. I wish that I could say that I’m not as selfish as I used to be. I wish I could say that I’ve learned something important about being an only child and that is X….but…I’m still a work in progress. And actually, if I play my cards right, the ebb and flow of personal realizations can take me for a few more years on the wave self-knowing…or something like that, without ever changing my thinking or altering my illusions.
Ok, but here’s the redeeming quality of the whole shebang. Somewhere along the way I’ve figured out that I actually NEED. More simply I am needy.
I need food, shelter, clothing and other misc. things to sustain my body.
It turns out that I need people too. Not only do I like people, but I NEED them in my life. I need to feel welcomed, loved, supported and encouraged. I also need to feel like I can be that for others as well. I need to be put in my place sometimes and learn from those people and experiences. I need to feel like I’m contributing, that who I am matters to others. I need to feel like I have a place in this world and that there is something about ME that people want to know more about…or even love. Consequently, I have to leave the binds of my illusion of independence and suck it up because my internal desire to be self-reliant is counterproductive to fully entering into relationship with people and places. And really, any other version of life is only a portion of what could be. I know this to be true on many days, but I don’t always live it. Sometimes I need a jumpstart to get me out of a holding pattern. Sometimes I just have to surrender, to a place, to the reality in front of me and even to love, to jolt me into realizing that I am not as independent as I think that I am. And, that my grand notions of independence bring me further into myself and not into relationship with the world around me.
Let’s take an easy example of my time here in Belize….
I’ve been coming here for the last eight years and for the most part, I know my way around. But I still have to depend on my friends to keep me in line. Not only do they tell me where to eat, show me around the city and keep me out of trouble but they offer friendship, conversation and guidance when I need it most. Sure, there is some mutuality to my relationships here in Belize, but I can say for myself that my time here would not be so easy if I tried to assert my notion of independence. And really, because of my dependence and personal flexibility, I’ve been able to experience some profound openness in my own heart…the kind of openness that comes when you live as though you have nothing to lose.
For me, this is where the Nouwen quote comes in. I do believe that independence is important especially in terms of being a “free thinker”, a competent individual and being able to determine what you really want in life. Most day’s I am not lacking in this. But when my heart and life are so closed to the guidance of another….when I neglect to realize that others depend on my actions and decisions….when I forget that my own need for self-preservation creates boundaries in relationship…then…THEN, I have taken my own notion of independence too far. And like the Nouwen quote, being “free” doesn’t feel liberating.
Lately, I’ve been trying to live my life in such a way that honors the person that I am….as flawed as I am. I can willfully and joyfully say that I depend on my community (as a whole). I’m continuing to understand all the places I can shed my notion of personal independence to live more fully in those relationships. Personal pain and relational hiccups can serve as setbacks in continuous flow, but the more liberating piece of the pie is choosing to live in an interdependent way even when I know things won’t always go to plan. Exercising my freedom to live as if I have not been hurt…to live as if things will all work out…to live as if each moment is important and part of the plan…those are the pieces that capture me in all the right ways and legitimize my shift of being. (mind you, none of this is very easy)
When I think of the word freedom I find that the world independence is not too far behind. And for some, one idea feeds into the next. They are synonyms if you will. But when looking up the definition of freedom I have found these phrase that resonate with me, given the struggles that I face:
• Release from captivity
• Power to determine action without restraint
• Frankness of manner or speech
I’m guessing that Henri Nouwen was looking to be released from the captivity of his false notions that he was an “independent” man. I’m guessing that he wanted to live his life in such a way that did not give more power to this notion of independence, but more so to the way of his heart. I am guessing that he wanted his life to mean something and that his honest way of living might help him be more transparent and relational. I’m guessing he wanted to invite the same in others.
These are all just guesses….but I know this is true for me. And I know this is also difficult for me. Alas, I am still working on it…