The Myth of Independence

The Myth of Independence

There’s an allegorical tale shared across many different cultures, often referred to as the story of “the long spoons.” In it, a man is given a tour of heaven and hell. First he visits hell, and what he sees there are thousands of emaciated souls all seated at a massive banquet table. They are starving to death, even though the table is laden with sumptuous food. And the reason they are starving is that each is equipped with only a spoon, but the spoon handle is too long to be able to reach their own mouths. Worse than the actual starvation, is the torment of their frustration.

Next, he visits heaven where a similar scene plays out, only here the blessed souls are all well fed and contented, even though they are equipped with the same spoon. How did they accomplish this? Well, they had figured out how to reach across the table and feed the person sitting opposite. They were able to eat all they wanted because they had figured out how to feed one another. All of a sudden, the man understood. Heaven and hell offer very similar circumstances; the difference is in the way that people treat one another. Some people would rather starve than actually give another the pleasure of eating. And if that’s the case, they are already living in hell.

This week in the United States we celebrate our national birthday, and the Declaration of Independence that set forth the ideals and aspirations of this newly formed country. As we celebrate our independence, it’s worth remembering that we live in a very fragile ecosystem, all parts dependent upon the other for our survival. As John Muir noted:

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

Not only does the melting of the polar ice caps affect the mating habits of penguins, but lo and behold – it also affects our weather patterns! The security of “other people” half way around the globe, directly affects our own security here at home. If population growth is not our problem, then it soon will be when the world population doubles in fifty years’ time and the demand for basic resources like food and water exceeds supply. Until we recognize the true nature of our interdependence, it’s unlikely that we will ever know real freedom and security that the founding fathers hoped for.

I understand the deeply ingrained American ideal of the rugged individual who just wants to be left alone to forge his own path. John Wayne didn’t do crowd sourcing to fund his cattle drives, or blog about it on the way (“The hell you say!”) But when trouble came a knocking – guess what? It was the “community” who hired Gary Cooper to stand up to the bad guys, paid for by the banker, the butcher, the undertaker and the candlestick maker. It was a collective effort that saw America expand into the great nation it now is. When American ingenuity built the railroads, it was on the backs of cheap immigrant labor, most of them Chinese or Irish. The point is: nobody does it all alone and it would be churlish to pretend otherwise. We need other people to reach our fullest potential as individuals, and as nations.

It’s no surprise to learn that there is a new “sharing economy” which is slowly changing the way the global marketplace works. Some of the most successful startup companies in recent years – RelayRides, LiquidSpace, TaskRabbit, Lyft, GETaround, Meetup, Airbnb – understand the “long spoon” concept very well. Human beings do not exist alone in a vacuum, nor do we wish to. By bringing people together, sharing our resources more effectively, we can have a healthier economy, a better quality of life, and feel more connected to the world we live in. Interdependence is not only good for our souls, it’s also good for business.

Because we live in a culture that worships independence above all else, we tend to be suspicious of any degree of dependence, seeing it as a tacit sign of weakness. And yet we are all dependent on others in one way or another. Most people find themselves drawn to romantic partners who have different but complementary skills. This is a sign of intelligence, not weakness. The myth of independence only promotes isolation and loneliness.

As the saying goes, “If you’d like to change the world, try starting with yourself.” A good way to begin is to identify one person who has made a contribution to making your life a little easier, and tell them how this has affected you. Go ahead and thank that person – in person if you can – for all the ways in which they have helped you. Maybe before you get to your desk in the morning, stop and take a minute before plugging in your headphones and connect with someone in your office. Put away your iPhone and look at people’s faces now and again. Maybe share some of the details of your personal life, and seek the same in return (but not too much!). Don’t be afraid to make the first move. You will feel less scared and less alone because of it.

As John Donne reminds us: No man is an island. And as it turns out, that is a very good thing.

Happy INTERdependence day.