NOTE: This is the first draft of the “Independence” essay in my forthcoming book, Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas.
Responses and comments welcome, no matter how brief.
Copyright 2013 David J. Bookbinder
As an American, I have valued independence most of my life. Independence is highly prized here. We announced our freedom from England with a Declaration of Independence and July 4th is still our most hallowed national holiday. We see independence as our greatest strength and we promote it – sometimes aggressively – as a global ideal. We associate independence with positive qualities such as self-sufficiency, self-reliance, self-determination, autonomy, and – most of all – with freedom.
But what is independence, really?
In my own life, independence began with defiance of authority. As a first-year engineering student in 1969, I proudly wore a button with a Greek Omega (the electrical symbol for resistance) on my torn denim jacket. My peers and I rebelled against anyone and anything we deemed oppressive, from dress codes and curfews when we were in high school, to racial oppression, poverty, the death penalty, the draft, and the War in Vietnam.
Although I still believe most of the issues we fought for then were legitimate, looking back on that era, I wonder if we were as independent in our thinking as we thought. Defiant independence is reactive and defines itself through opposition: “They” were the hard hats, the Establishment, the Military-Industrial Complex; “we” were the students, the hippies, the Left, the Revolution. In the name of liberty and equality, we set up yet another dichotomy, and our individual identities fell through the cracks between two worlds. Only much later did we, as a generation, begin the difficult task of self-examination, reluctantly identifying the imbalances of power and the biases, prejudices, and limitations that propagate them. Still to come is the fundamental restructuring necessary for true independence for us all.
Defiant independence is an advance over blind obedience, but it cannot be true independence. It is limited by the same parameters as the forces it is reacting against. When we are defiantly independent, we are enslaved by our opposition, reflexively following its dictates in an unconscious, disempowered way.
The changes wrought by defiant independence are often only skin deep. Those created by the bold political movements of the 60s were largely transitory. Although vestiges of my generation’s visions of a fairer, gentler, more equitable world have carried forward, for the most part our “revolution” has either transitioned to accommodation or has been reversed.
Economic statistics are a chilling indicator of the failure of these movements to diminish inequality. Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty may have improved the lives of some individuals, but the gap in the U.S. between richest and poorest is wider now than it has been since the Great Depression. (In the developed world, only Chile, Mexico, and Turkey have a greater income gap than the U.S.) Despite the legislative changes that came out of the Civil Rights movement, and even in the face of the first black presidency, the gap between blacks and whites is three times what it was a generation ago. Economically, women have fared better than blacks and the poor since the 60s, but men still earn roughly 80% more than women in equivalent jobs, and at its current rate, another 45 years will pass before the income gap completely closes.
Radical movements of the 60s such as Women’s Liberation and Gay Liberation have largely been co-opted, mainstreaming straight women and gay men and women rather than carrying out the original intentions of these movements to transform the larger society into a more open, enlightened, and equitable one. Though there have been some gains in civil rights, heterosexual women and gay men and women also now have the “right” to run corporations as ruthlessly as their male heterosexual counterparts, and to kill or be killed in wars of oppression little different from the War in Vietnam.
Even the virtual ban on U.S. invasions that followed the failure of the Vietnam War lasted only a generation. President George H. W. Bush redefined “We don’t want another Vietnam” to mean “We don’t want to lose” and paved the way for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Because the complexities of the opposition to the Vietnam War were reduced to a slogan, and the underpinnings of our social and political agendas remained the same, it wasn’t difficult to put another spin on the phrase and resume, in the name of freedom and independence, the practice of U.S.-led wars of conquest.
And so on.
To return to the personal, in my high school years I began to develop signs of true independence through an emerging writing/feeling/interacting side. But this rigidified into defiant independence when my father repudiated my decision to leave engineering and rejected what I see, now, as conformist changes in my appearance (but saw, then, as a visual declaration of independence).
After college, defiant independence played out, for me, mainly in career choices. Refusing to be part of the “establishment” or to “sell out” permeated my 20s and dictated what I wrote about and who I chose to work for, a narrow and uncompromising formula that preserved a sense of independence from my father’s will, but resulted in years of struggling to make a living. By the time I was 30, I had sunk into depression. For the next decade I languished in technical writing, satisfying neither my father’s desire for me to become an engineer nor my own to flourish as a creative writer.
Another disempowered form of independence stems from not getting the help we need as children. After repeated, failed attempts, we learn not to ask. Instead, we overvalue our independence and self-reliance.
I came to understand this help-rejecting, defensive process on my first technical writing job. In my early weeks at Digital Equipment Corporation, I worked frantically from the moment I got to my cubicle until I left for the day, literally running from one place to another to keep up with what felt like an impossible schedule. I noticed that a co-worker with whom I shared a cubicle wall, on the other hand, seemed to have time to chat, appeared to be relaxed, took frequent breaks, and often had programmers in her space. I found myself resenting her, assuming that she was waltzing through the job. But her documentation was as accurate as my own and her output as quick.
Eventually I asked her how she managed. She told me that she asked the software developers on her project for help. Until that moment, I had never questioned the value of my ability to independently figure things out. I was unaware that asking for help was even an option, much less one as valuable to master as self-reliance. Years later, following my hospitalization in Albany, this new skill would prove to be profoundly liberating and life-affirming.
A third kind of disempowered independence shows up mainly in personal relationships and typically stems from attachment styles developed early in childhood.
As infants and toddlers, we form secure attachments when our caregivers respond promptly, appropriately, and consistently to our needs. We learn that we can count on them, and so we are free to explore our environments, knowing we will have a safe place to return to.
Anxious attachments develop when our caregivers are inconsistent: sometimes we get what we need, sometimes our needs are neglected, sometimes they are rejected outright. We learn that we can’t count on our caregivers. We become preoccupied with their availability, upset when we separate from them, anxious when we are not in their presence.
Avoidant attachment occurs when our caregivers don’t appropriately respond to us when we are in distress. When caregivers discourage crying and emphasize independence while we are still in a dependent state, we learn to disregard them as a way to get our needs met. We grow disconnected.
The attachment styles we form as adults usually parallel the ones we formed as children.
Anxiously attached adults become dependent and enmeshed. They feel chronically incomplete and strive to find a mate who will make them feel whole.
Avoidant adults seek independence, often shunning attachment altogether. They see themselves as self-sufficient and not needing close relationships, typically believing that deeper connection will cause them to lose their autonomy. They feel “independent” only when loosely committed or, in more extreme cases, only when they are alone.
Securely attached adults are comfortable with both intimacy and independence and readily balance the two. Each person in the relationship feels whole, but each is also free to connect deeply without fusing, to separate without anxiety, and to come together in a welcome, amiable way without clutching or distancing.
* * *
Centuries ago, English poet John Donne wrote, “No man is an island, entire of itself. Each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”
What our true natures desire is not defiant independence, defensive independence, or disconnected independence, but the balanced independence and connection of the securely attached child – to be complete in ourselves, but also to become, in both our personal relationships and the larger community, interdependent.
Disempowered forms of independence are hard to shift. We develop them because at one time they protected us from the pain of being dominated or neglected, and they become grafted onto our identities. Very young children don’t know that how their caregivers respond to their needs for both dependence and independence is not the way everyone will respond. When we grow up, however, if we become conscious of our patterns, our options also open up.
My own path to interdependence is ongoing. Letting go of defiant independence and learning to explore what is truly my path has freed me from the bondage of reactivity. Letting go of self-sufficiency and asking for help during times of illness, financial hardship, and emotional crises has broadened and deepened my connections without in any way compromising my sense of independence. Fostering interdependence remains, for me, a work in progress, but each step in that direction is deeply fulfilling, as I enter not only into personal partnerships, but also into coalitions with professional, spiritual, and artistic peers.
In my own life, as well as in my work with therapy clients, real independence requires developing a profound knowing and owning of who we are. This process is aided by consciously testing our self-limiting beliefs and challenging our self-protective patterns of behavior. Opening to the possibilities of “corrective experiences” inside and outside therapy permits my clients to heal the wounds of their childhood attachment styles by allowing something new to occur. I know that they are ready to move on from therapy when they have consistently found ways to connect meaningfully and happily outside our therapeutic relationship.
From that healed place of interdependence, we are all better able to identify and implement lasting change in our world. Ultimately – as our experience with climate change has made apparent – we are not only independent islands but also interdependently connected to the whole, person to person, nation to nation, creature to creature: to every living and non-living thing.