Many people growing up in Western Society (and increasingly in other societies as well) attend school with the message that you can do or be whatever you want to be in the World. Sometimes this message is accompanied by strong suggestions of what you should do by your parents, as they try their best to be helpful. Your success with achieving that goal or any other goal depends a lot on the effort that you put into your work and your decision-making. The responsibility of leading your life is ultimately on your own shoulders.
There is a lot of truth in this message, as many people experience the fruits of hard work. But there is also an underlying pressure around the idea that the outcomes in our lives are solely dependent on the effort that we put into life. Many people are scared of failure because we are told it is a direct reflection of our character (for example: labeling “he is smart” or “she is lazy”) and this judgement causes a lot of anxiety. We are rarely reminded that achieving our goals depends a lot on the support of people around us, the health of the environment, the societal system, and perhaps even a greater power or spirit (depending on one’s beliefs).
In Western Society, we prop up the importance of the individual and celebrate independence in many aspects of our lives. Take for example scholastic achievements, awards and recognitions of individual effort, or diet and exercise challenges. There is also a constant pressure on recent graduates to strike out on their own and find stable employment. The value of dependence on family, a partner, our community, neighboring countries, and on the natural World around us is severely downplayed and even looked down upon. The pressures to be independent as an organisation or business exist as well.
I had my own experience of “failure” last year which for me highlighted the pressure that many of us are under to be independent individuals. I was working with a reputable environmental non-profit organisation and living in my own apartment. I decided to leave after the end of my contract and go travelling. I travelled to Colombia and had an amazing experience, fell in love, and started writing a book. But when I stayed longer than planned, I came back and I was very dependent on my family. I had to move in with my parents and borrow money from my family. For many people, this is seen as failure. Everyone was offering ideas and suggestions to help me get on my own feet as soon as possible. I felt like I fell into the crevasse of our society. But I also experienced the strongest gratitude I have ever felt for the loving support of my family.
Many young adults are experiencing this need to move back in with their parents these days and are experiencing the stigma around being dependent and the associated stress, sometimes even depression. In other countries, for example in India, living with one’s family as an adult is seen as a virtue and having multiple generations under one roof is valued. But in Canada, where I grew up, most adults are expected to move into their own house our apartment (sometimes to a different province or country), find a partner, and start their own family. The number of young adults living on their own is also seen as a sign of a strong economy, which is highly valued in our society.
Experiencing this societal failure was a wake up call for me that we are living with this heavy expectation to be independent. But are we ever REALLY independent? I want to offer you some points of reflection. How did you achieve your grades in school? Did you ever have help from your parents, friends, or tutors? What about a kid from a disadvantaged family with low grades; do you think their grades would be a reflection of their intelligence and motivation or because they are lacking support? How did you get your first or second job? I discovered upon entering the job world that a lot of those first jobs are dependent on who you know. Also, where do you get the water you need to live, the food you need to eat, or the air you need to breathe? Whether we like it or not, we are ALL dependent on a healthy ecosystem for our sustenance.
Being dependent is a truly BEAUTIFUL thing, because it means that we are alive! It is not possible to be alive without being in relationship to something or someone. Period. Somehow, many humans (especially from colonial societies) have developed a strong illusion that it is possible to be completely independent as individuals and as a species. And to be dependent on other people for our success in life or dependent on the health of other living beings is weak or sinful. Being dependent is not weak. Dependence on another person in a loving relationship can be very vulnerable but it can also help bring out our best selves. It is our greatest strength to have the ability to value, build, and sustain healthy relationships that support all of our needs. That includes being stewards of our environment.
Here is where I think a paradox becomes clear. We need healthy relationships to survive and thrive. But we also need a healthy sense of self to find what we need in the World; whether it be relationships, a sense of purpose, or a way to make a living. The beautiful thing about being independent individuals is that we have agency. We can make decisions, make changes in our lives, and even observe our own patterns of thinking and shift our own beliefs. We need independence for self empowerment. But we also need to recognise the power of dependence. Somewhere along the way we began to value independence more but we need both. How do we juggle these seemingly opposite energies in the same life? Can we be both independent and dependent as human beings? That is for all of us to discover.
Here are 5 recommendations for your journey of discovery (if you so choose):
- Observe your thoughts, beliefs, and values. There are many ways to do this, including journaling, art, meditation, and talking to friends and family.
- Identify the major causes of stress if your life. Ask yourself: Why do I hold on to these expectations/beliefs? Can I make any shifts in my life to reduce this stress?
- Express gratitude for your direct relationships. We all need someone to loooove (including friends, family, partners, and pets). Find ways to show that you care.
- Express gratitude for your indirect relationships. Contemplate all of the unseen or less obvious forces that enable you to live. The drinking water sources, the farmers, the land full of nutrients, the bees… and take time to think of how you can show that you care.
- Share your new insights with others. Don’t keep new knowledge or understanding to yourself. We all depend on each other to awaken to our beautiful, interconnected World.