Sunday, July 3, 2011

Redefining Independence

by Miki Kashtan

Tomorrow is the 4th of July, a national holiday of independence in the USA. I am drawn to reflecting on the topic, and especially how it plays out in the North American culture within which I live and work. Independence is one of the highest values in this culture. Its two interweaving strands of meaning appear as a rejection of dependence, of being in need of others, at their mercy. Both interfere with conscious interdependence, the practice of collaborating with others to create outcomes that work for more and more people.

Moving toward Inner Freedom
One strand of meaning is about the freedom to make choices without having to consult with others. I often see this showing up as a somewhat rebellious stance: “You can’t tell me what to do.” I have had this particular experience enough to recognize that it comes with some kind of satisfaction, some sense that I am standing up for myself. I can so understand the appeal of this response.

This widespread experience has far-reaching consequences for our ability to create a livable future. For a prime example, our material possessions are a sacrosanct institution. We are given the right to dispose of the resources we own as we see fit. This idea is part of the core allure of the modern commodity-based economy, despite all the hardships so many of us experience. We have the carrot of believing that if we accumulate enough resources than no one can tell us what to do. This is the consolation prize for the separation, scarcity, and powerlessness that we experience so often.

This makes it exceedingly difficult to engage with others and make collaborative decisions. When we have few resources, we struggle to imagine that we have a say. We either give up without even trying and feel defeated, or we stand up defiant and forget about the humanity of others and lose our capacity to engage with them productively. When we do have access to resources, we hold on to the option of making all the decisions about our own actions, and struggle to maintain a sense of care for and interest in others who may not have as many resources.

Most of us were mostly told what to do when we were growing up. It’s still an exceptionally rare family in which children are seen as partners. As adults we still lack models for how we can engage with others in ways that completely honor our autonomy. Including others in our decisions appears more like asking for permission than anything that could possibly benefit us. Our sense of freedom is guarded tightly against infringement.

True inner freedom is closer to the original meaning of autonomy – living by one’s own laws. There is nothing reactive, defiant, resistant, or defensive about it. Instead, it comes calmly and softly from within, giving us more resilience when engaging with others. The word for independence in Hebrew, my first and beloved language, speaks to this kind of freedom. Its root is the same as the root for self.

Questioning Self-Sufficiency
Independence is also understood as the idea of living without being in need of others. So many people go to great lengths, even to harming themselves (e.g. by carrying weight that’s too heavy for their bodies) just to ensure they don’t ask for help. Countless times I have been in situations where I offered help to people, especially parents of small children who were struggling to get their shopping done, and have invariably been politely declined. This message is internalized deeply and passed on even when questioned. Its persistence interferes with opening up to receiving support, to reaching out, to knowing that we matter enough to get our needs met.

Ironically, our way of living has actually made us less and less self-reliant, less able to create the resources we need to survive and thrive, as individuals and communities, even as we strive for more and more self-sufficiency. Fewer and fewer of us know how to grow the food we eat, make the clothes we wear, build the houses we live in, or find water anywhere other than in the pipe.

On the material plane we render our dependence invisible through the medium of money. Collectively, we uphold the illusion that if we have enough money we don’t depend on anyone, when in fact we use money to pay for what we don’t do on our own, and irreducibly relying on others, not just ourselves, for surviving. We also pretend that we don’t have an effect on others, with the collective result of operating, in the US, without any sense that we matter, and living reckless lives without much concern for the cost to others and nature.

On the emotional plane we pretend to be OK even when we are not, and maintain a stiff upper lip. The result is living in profound isolation which results in stress, illness, and high rates of depression.

When we can recognize and acknowledge our dependence we can become truly self-responsible. On the material plane this would mean finding self-reliance by recognizing the cost to others and the planet and finding ways to live within our local means. On the emotional plane this would mean learning to understand and accept our needs and asking for what we want while being in dialogue with others to get our needs met in ways that work for them, too.

Cultivating Interdependence
It is no wonder, given these persistent versions of independence, that cultivating awareness of our interdependence is one of the biggest challenges that we could present to the modern sensibility of industrialized countries.

For as long as our sense of freedom and choice depends on rejecting what comes from the outside, the delicate negotiations necessary for making things work for more and more people remain beyond reach. For as long as dependence on others is seen as weakness and failure, the necessary learning about sharing resources appears as taking something away from us rather than providing us access to more.

What is needed is nothing short of embracing our individual and collective capacity to make choice in tandem with others and the willingness to own our fundamental dependence on others. We need enormous strength and perseverance as we work to transcend the insidious message of separation we have inherited. Then we can finally band together, reach out for support, form communities, and create the conditions for all of our thriving.


  1. My understanding of the independence the Colonies were looking for had to do with economic and religious freedom. It had to do with being frustrated by England's economic policies and not having any representation in the political process. They wanted control of their destinies. Life, I am guessing, was very difficult in 1776 and the people living here were very much aware of their interdependence, living on the edge of life and death.

    The founding fathers were brilliant in their vision of what this country might become. At the same time, native Americans, women and black people were not included in this vision. A huge blind spot and travesty which took a very long time to correct, at least in our laws, if not in our culture.

    Honestly, I feel offended by this piece, written on July 4th, the day of our celebration of Independence from the tyranny of England. I do not disagree with what was said, but find it to be inappropriate to what the holiday represents, honoring the sacrifice of our ancestors.

    Lets give them their due, with all their faults and blind spots, on this day of independence from the madness of King George.

  2. i am grateful to whoever wrote this piece for speaking your truth. whether or not i like what's being said, i always feel comforted by the practice of truth-telling.

    being an immigrant, i had no idea that writing this piece could be the occasion for discomfort and challenge for someone reading it.

    what is clear to me reading your comment is just how much you treasure the foresight and the fierce commitment to vision that you associate with the people who founded this country. i also hear your mourning for what they were unable to see at the time.

    i also hear and resonate with your own appreciation of the freedom to choose one's own life and destiny. i imagine that, like me, you want that for everyone.

    with this awkward medium and not knowing who you are, i hope you can bear with me as i share a bit of my own thoughts about this.

    with my awareness of the level of destruction of previously existing cultures created by the colonies and then the independent country that was formed here, i have a very mixed feeling about it. i both respect and honor what they were able to see, and feel huge amounts of pain for what they didn't see and what so many in our own day continue to not see.

    i regret not finding ways of speaking directly to what you and many others honor about this day, and not seeing that not speaking to it could be interpreted to mean i am now holding with care and respect what people here did in relation to england. i get that what you want was to just focus on honoring them on this one day.

    i hope that we can rest in mutual understanding.


  3. My name is Janet Rock. We have not met. I found out about your blog from someone who practices NVC in Rochester NY. Because you are from Bay NVC, I am guessing we are just one degree of separation - Kit is a friend of mine.

    As an American, I have lots of shame around the settlement of the United States- the holocaust of the Native Americans, the slavery of Africans. I also have lots of shame about what I see America doing to others nations right now. Colonizing, exploiting, murdering, just like the British of old.

    Still, today I am honoring the intention and vision of the "Founding Fathers", especially their vision of religious freedom, an unknown in the world at that time. When I think of the wars and torture done in the name of religion over history and still going on right now, I am so grateful to live here. I do not practice a mainstream religion; how wonderful that I can do this without fear.

    Thank you for writing this blog, Miki, which I enjoy very much. and thanks for "getting it". I have learned so much from reading your posts.

    Janet Rock