Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Joe Omundson


I used to think that becoming "independent" was one of the main goals of my lifestyle experimentation. While I do still strive to have the freedom to do what I please, my perspective on the concept of dependence has changed.

Here is what I realized: independence is a myth.

Independence is defined as "freedom from the control, influence, support, aid, or the like, of others." ("Others" probably means "other humans", but I'll leave that open-ended.)

The thing is, life simply can't operate on independence. Dependence is the reality of how life exists. Everyone is dependent on the support of others. Most of us exist in an economic system where we depend on our employers to give us money. We depend on other people to create businesses which give us the things we need in exchange for that money. We depend on farmers to grow our food, factory workers to make our products, engineers to design clean water systems, etc. The more we earn and spend, the more our existence depends on the work of others.

But even someone who uses no money and survives as a hermit without any human contact is still dependent on countless organisms for their survival. They need plants and/or animals to become their food. Plants rely on nutrients that exist in the soil, and on water, and on energy which has traveled across space from the Sun to the Earth. Our climate maintains itself as a balance of many different variables and we depend on that system for a habitable planet. We need bacteria in our gut to extract the necessary nutrition from our food. Indeed, every person is deeply connected to many other life forms and nobody can survive independently.

Yet the word independence still makes us think of a certain idea. Supposedly, independence is the freedom to do what we want, when we want. The ability to make our own decisions without someone else's permission.

I prefer a different word to describe this idea. Autonomy: "freedom to determine one's own actions, behavior, etc."

The word autonomy comes from greek "auto" (self) + "nomos" (law or custom). Perhaps the etymology makes more literal sense on a national level, as an autonomous nation is a self-governing one; but I think it can also be applied on a personal level. If I have autonomy, then it is me who determines my customs, my rules. Autonomy describes freedom of action while independence describes a lack of connection to others. Autonomy is a mindset, a set of mental DNA that changes the way we interact with others.

The thing I realized is, autonomy doesn't actually imply an absence of dependence. Autonomy exists as one of many forms of interdependence. Independence is fictional, so interdependence is the only option; the only thing that changes is how we interact within interdependence.

Autonomy includes the freedom to depend on other people in any way we choose, in order to satisfy personal needs and contribute to the world in the best way we can. Since our personalities are so complex, it is helpful to realize that there are a wide variety of life paths that can be chosen.

Everyone has the same basic needs of food, water, shelter, love, community, accomplishment. Some of us have special needs beyond that which may be caused by health status or life situations. On top of that we have vastly different preferences for how we interact with others, how we spend our time, and how we meet our basic needs. A strong, experiential sense of self-knowledge enables the kind of autonomy where we are able to decide for ourselves what patterns will govern our lives most effectively; our individual life strategy. When we apply this strategy intentionally to our daily lives, we find forms of interdependence that boost us rather than hold us back or hurt us.

Perhaps what works best for one person is a stable life that is very closely tied to others -- a spouse, kids, family, a career, and a day-to-day experience where the activities chosen are based mostly on meeting other people's needs. If this is what someone knows works best for them, then choosing a married, settled lifestyle is in fact a wise use of their autonomy even though it is not very independent.

Perhaps someone else is on the complete opposite end of the spectrum: they don't want to be bound to others at all, don't care to have a family or a job, and desire the freedom to travel anywhere at any time. This person would do well to learn street smarts, make friends with all kinds of people, and learn to give and accept freely. In order to move through society, they still need to depend on other people's effort and support. If done skillfully, this dependence is not limiting, but freeing; they will find support anywhere they go. This is also a wise use of autonomy.

However we depend on others, the important thing is to do it in a way that aligns with our individuality. When we delegate our mental autonomy to outside influences (country, religion, tradition, etc.), when we allow our life patterns to be governed by others, there is a higher risk of feeling trapped in a system that does not promote our own health and happiness. These other systems which can so easily dominate our lives do not necessarily have our best interests in mind.

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