Devon Jersild: Are we really independent? Not so much as you may think

The Dalai Lama is coming to Middlebury this weekend and will give a talk called  “Finding Common Ground: Ethics for a Whole World.” I imagine he’ll also instruct us in “interdependence” — our reliance on nature and all living creatures — a concept foundational to his teachings. Interdependence, says the Dalai Lama, is a law of nature. The tiniest insects know about this: Without benefit of laws or morality codes, they cooperate for survival. Human beings are the same. In our long period of infancy we are utterly dependent on others to feed and shelter us. What’s more, we cannot prosper — our brains will not develop properly, indeed, we may not even survive — if we are not, as infants, loved and nurtured with physical touch.
Isn’t it funny that we need to be reminded of our interconnectedness? In our culture, it’s easy to imagine that human beings grow out of mutual dependence when they leave childhood behind. Perhaps this is part of our national heritage. The myth of the “New Adam” has a prominent place in American intellectual history: the idea that American immigrants and their descendants can, in this brave new world, start off fresh in the Garden of Eden, with no debt to history and ancestors. (Never mind Adam’s indebtedness to God, or God’s decision that Adam needed a companion!) In his classic book “The American Adam,” R.W.B. Lewis describes this heroic figure as “an individual standing alone, self-reliant and self-propelling, ready to confront whatever awaited him with the aid of his own unique and inherent resources.”
This myth is charming in many ways; it captures our optimistic national spirit, as well as the individualism that certainly has its upsides. But there are downsides to our idealization of the individual. People get the message that their completely normal dependency needs are somehow shameful.
People often reveal the shame they feel about needing help of any kind when they come to psychotherapy. I don’t mean shame about seeking psychotherapy (though that can be there too) but a sense of inadequacy about needing help at work or in other arenas, or needing other people at all: such as experiencing deep loneliness when in a new and exciting place where they “should” be enjoying themselves. We hold before us this ideal of self-sufficiency, as if, instead of permeable skin, our boundaries were made of steel, with everything we need to live inside.
When people describe to me a goal of self-sufficiency, I generally say something like, “Good luck!” When we are healthy and at the peak of our power in the world, we can more easily sustain this “delusion of consciousness,” as Albert Einstein once called our sense of independence from the universe around us. It’s a sad kind of delusion, as it deprives us of the intimacy and joy that come when we deeply understand our mutual needs. When we are sick, or in trouble, or aging, we can no longer sustain the notion of utter self-reliance. At this point, if we continue to buy into the cultural narrative that finds human need undignified, and shames the ill and the dependent, we are likely to become bitter and deflated and terrified. Alternatively, we can discover the gifts and the reality of interdependence, and the sense of responsibility to others and the earth that arises from this awareness.
Because of the environmental crisis, we are becoming more alert to the reality of reciprocity and mutuality with the natural world.
Yet interdependence can remain an abstract concept, something we hear about but do not truly understand. That “optical delusion” Einstein describes is pretty fierce for most of us, and so, on many levels, we remain convinced of our essential separateness.  Einstein himself — who better than the rest of us understood the illusory quality of time and space — described the effort he made to break through this delusion: “A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life depend on the labors of other men, living and dead.”
Einstein made a pointed effort to educate and expand his own consciousness, in order to become more deeply attuned both to what he received from others, and to sharpen his desire to give. I suspect the Dalai Lama wants much the same, for all of us.
Devon Jersild is a licensed psychologist-doctorate with a psychotherapy practice in Weybridge.

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