The sound of a crying baby is suppose to be the single most annoying sound for a human being to hear. If this is true then call me a gray skinned, pair-headed, saucer-driver. Call me a long-haired, banana-fang, slit-eyed seer. Call me a toe-digging, light-sucking, chlorophyll-painter. I’d take a babies cries any day.
Just please don’t turn your tongue into a transatlantic vessel blasting the words “self sufficiency” or “independence” like a fog horn at the nearest sight of a haze called my life. In years past I would have been the captain pulling the fog horn myself. I would have been standing at the helm steering for the exact center of the Atlantic or any place that looked as far from needing help as possible. If my childhood taught me anything it taught me that I needed to be resilient. It gave me many opportunities to problems solve and learn the value of responsibility. I took responsibility on until it was too heavy to carry and then I’d drop what I couldn’t carry in frustration before slowly picking up some more heavy bricks.
But lately I’ve been faced with a very peculiar situation. I’m in the middle of a two month period in between buying my ticket to Denmark and actually leaving.
After some unexpected floors falling out from under me I had to figure out how to have a place to be and work to do in a period of time that was not quite enough to set up an American life complete with a job, a place to pay rent and transportation but was also too long to not work and have no plans. This lead me to many very uncomfortable feelings of needing help, of not feeling independent. Oh boy this was uncomfortable for me. I immediately began filling my pot with worries about inconveniencing my friends and generally being a drain on society. Quite soon that pot was boiling over and I needed to get away from this feeling so I could examine it.
I thought that going into the woods could make me feel independent. I had the idea that the knowledge that I could take care of all my needs in the woods would help me to relax because I would know of one place where I didn’t need anyone to to take care of me. I knew in a intellectual way that every organism requires other life to support them. There was something not connecting, some level I had missed. I have experienced this so many times in my life. I think I know something but at some point I understand the deeper implications of that knowledge and it becomes applicable in real life. I had already started to think of this idea of self sufficiency and independence as a cultural idea. An idea that makes sense within the cultural beliefs but only within those bounds.
When I came out of the woods I had the experience of watching a baby flop around like a beached seal. He needed everything provided for him. He can’t eat unless someone pushes his milk into his mouth. He can’t even reach his own bottom to clean himself when he poops. He is the epitome of dependency. ‘But wait, who do I think I am?’ I thought. ‘What is the food truck that supplies my local grocery store but a large milk bottle being places in my reach? What is the money I use to pay for that metaphorical milk bottle but my substitute for familial love?’.
If I compare my abilities and my needs it appears so similar to me. I can walk to the store and I pay for my food with money as a way of mutual support. A baby’s world is geographically smaller but he or she lives in a similar level of dependency. I need thousands of people to do their job for me to be able to buy food at the store, not to mention the infinity of creation that is required to provide even a single potato chip.
My culture loves to separate and pick apart everything. Even the word ‘Everything’, ‘every’ ‘thing’ is a way of saying that the world is made up of distinct pieces, of things. We say people have legs. We say people are made out of molecules. We divide the world into cities and forests, roads and trails, bedrooms and kitchens, atoms and molecules, animals and humans, tools and weapons, clouds and mist, this and that. There is so many different distinctions that even something that is one thing can also be many things. A dog is an animal, a canine, domestic or wild, a Golden Retriever or a Dhole.
In so many ways we try to make things into only one thing, we dive into everything with microscopes and telescopes to find the farthest and smallest pieces of each thing we have a name for. So much of this is useful and helpful for us. We need to decide if we’re drinking coffee or chlorine. We need to walk on the sidewalk and not the highway. But there are times when we use our definitions to draw the knife to our own necks. We use words to turn the existence that we occupy into a minefield or even a hell.
Think about what would happen if you labeled a piece of food ‘safe’ when it was toxic, or if you labeled those two yellow lines in the middle of the road ‘your bed’. What if you didn’t think of your mother or your son as your family? What if you decided that half of your neighbors house was ‘your house’? What if you stopped thinking of your garden as yours?
I think climate change is what happens when a world labels their garden as someone else’s and something toxic as something safe.
I think most of the problems I see in the world are coming from an underlying unhelpful label. A definition or idea about the way things are that sways are decisions in a way that harms us. The idea is that there is any system other than the system we are in. The idea that nature and humanity are separate. The idea that anything can exist without the all. When we say that we’re destroying the environment we are destroying ourselves. We’ve probably all learned about how trees need sunlight and good soil to survive. Tree’s also need a vast variety of other things to exist in order for them to fit in their place. Things like gravity, animals to spread their seeds, bees or bats to pollinate, other trees to die and become richer soil, mycelium and other plants to hold the soil together and so many more things for these to exist. If you talk about a tree you have to start describing its environment also. Before long you have to describe more and more of the world. At some point a tree is its environment and so much of the separateness is actually more of a way of learning and trying to understand and less actually the way the world organizes itself.
I see this interconnection all around me and I wonder how people started to move their idea of themselves away from other forms of life. At what point do we say ‘self sufficient’ as a joke or a lie? I used to feel ashamed to need help but now I feel that less and less. I am not independent or self sufficient. I need other people, other animals and countless other parts of existence to live. This is natural and good.
I also realized that when I thought about wanting to be independent as an adult what I was really thinking was that independence was synonymous with paying money for all my stuff. I have always been anxious about money and the idea that money is the only way I would feel self sufficient has been present for a long time. I was playing by some rules that I didn’t even understand. My only valuable resource is not money. I have many resources to offer the world even when I don’t have very much money.
Money makes it possible for people to trade more easily but the system is still interdependence. In a strange way we are now more intimately connected to people farther away from us than we’ve ever been before. When I tried to become independent by paying for all of the things that I need I was denying what money was created for. A way to exchange goods across time and space. I can work today and spend the money I make next year in Vietnam. The things I have to offer are the things that money can often represent. Things like time or a skill set. I have all the things I use to exchange for money with me all the time.
The more I think about independence the more I see it is a harmful idea. Humans are fighting over so many differences and we are destroying our one home over the idea that we have many little homes. Labels and defining our world is important but it can also be a dangerous power. The words are only ways of representing how we truly feel about our world and sometimes it really is the way we learn a new way of seeing. It’s something that can change realities whatever way its used, intentionally or not, constructively or not.
Now that our human village has connected to the size of the planet we can harm or help people we’ve never met and destroy or help to build things we’ve never seen.
Maybe in the little villages of the past it was easier to see all the people you knew as your family, to see them as people whom you should care for not only for their sake but also for your own. In this larger world sometimes we ask for cheap clothes and a child in some poor nation makes it for us without most of the people in between ever knowing the child doing the half-pennies labor.
Maybe the next time you hear ‘independence’ or ‘self sufficient’ you will feel a bit like an alien as well. Resilience and personal strength are great but when we try to be independent we could succeed in disconnecting ourselves from the consequences of our own actions. If we lay down the idea of separateness we could begin to see more and more of the world as our home and more of the worlds people as our family.