A Declaration of Dependence
Americans celebrate independence, but dependence can also be essential, especially in difficult times
Fourth of July celebrations allow Americans to reconnect with our nation’s glorious traditions. We proudly celebrate noble ideals such as liberty, equality, and the most fundamental of American precepts: independence. The high value we place on independence is certainly understandable on a national scale where, for security and deterrence, we want to maintain an image of uncompromised strength and sovereignty.
But at the micro level, our personal obsession with independence might bring undesired consequences. Sometimes, it seems, there’s something to be said for dependence. This politically incorrect notion first occurred to me when I was speaking with patients receiving cancer treatment in my medical department. One such person, Shoshana, a successful executive in a mid-sized marketing company, was understandably proud of her accomplishments in rapidly ascending her firm’s corporate ladder. At the age of 54, with her career peaking, however, she hadn’t expected to be dealing with the large melanoma that had penetrated deeply under the skin of her thigh and then quickly spread to her brain. Suddenly, simple tasks—like driving, even to the cancer center for treatment—had ceased to be a given. It was not in Shoshana’s nature to ask friends to carry out day-to-day chores in her stead, but for the first time in her adult life, Shoshana was forced to sample dependence—relying on a neighbor to weed her vegetable garden and a sister to pick up her dry cleaning—and she wasn’t especially fond of the taste at first. “I thought I could do it all on my own,” she told me. “I wanted to. Until I realized that I was just piling a tremendous burden on myself.”
Cancer patients are not alone in craving independence. Numerous Internet surveys suggest that the top three wishes moms and dads have for their children are, in one order or another, happiness, wellness, and independence. And there is no shortage of seminars and how-to books designed to achieve such parenting goals. But as my cancer patients have eventually come to realize, our focus on independence can become overdone, and sometimes even self-defeating. This Fourth of July, even as we celebrate independence as a nation, we might do well to tip our flags to the practice of depending on other people. For us as individuals, the word “dependence” need not always signify a negative condition that we must overcome. Dependence can represent an essential, even comforting, situation.
Several decades ago, a popular book on the campus where I attended college was The Pursuit of Loneliness, by Philip Slater. The author observed that as individuals Americans had become preoccupied with the core value of independence—so much so, Slater surmised, that we unwittingly strive for the lofty Jeffersonian right to pursue happiness without considering the frequently unwelcome byproduct of such independence, which is loneliness. Slater persuasively argues that the absolute benefits of independent individualism are impossible to attain and that often so-called “personal achievement” denies a dependency that makes such achievement possible. Simply put, we need other people.
This past week, Jews in synagogues around the world read the Torah portion from Parashat Khukat describing the Red Heifer, a biologically anomalous cow that is featured in a procedure to purify anyone defiled by contact with a corpse. This law is the ultimate example of khukim—rules that are ostensibly not rational but rather issued by divine decree.
One interpretation of the Red Heifer tale that appeals to me is rooted in the performance of a ritual where a “most ingenious paradox” (apologies to Gilbert and Sullivan fans) lurks. Specifically, a defiled person can be purified only by the sprinkled ashes of the burned heifer, but the person who prepares those ashes becomes defiled himself in the preparation process. The beauty of this cycle of defilement and purification is that it provides two very realistic life lessons: When we help others, we are not magically immunized against misfortune, and there may in fact be downsides that we incur. What’s more, it is all right for people who receive help to accept the assistance even knowing that it might inconvenience the helper.
This parasha challenges us to blindly depend on another and dares us to consider cultivating a deep, meaningful connection with that other as a result of such dependence. We don’t need to navigate the storm by ourselves. Instead, we are comforted by our ability to rely on others who have thought through the intricacies of trying circumstances. In such a scenario, dependence can shed its negative connotation and soothe us.
This balance of dependence and interdependence is a phenomenon I frequently observe in the interaction between cancer patient and caregiver. A growing literature documents caregivers’ susceptibility to financial stress—stemming typically not only from medical bills but also from work-time missed—and personal health consequences. Despite those realities, it is inspiring to see caregivers persist in supporting patients and patients who possess the ego-strength to avail themselves of this support.
For the past decade, I have been privileged to coordinate spiritual “Partners for Life” retreats for couples who want to use a team approach to face the illness that affects one spouse. With the aid of both individual and group exercises (ranging from formal psychotherapy to more unconventional workshops directed by a chef who is also a licensed social worker, where couples talk through their issues while making sushi), I frequently observe stale marriages recast themselves as vibrant relationships. Patient and caregiver can acknowledge what it is that makes them feel incomplete or frankly deficient. During these intense outpourings of feeling, it is not unusual to learn that the caregiver is the needier one. Through this openness, dependence is condoned and growth is enabled.
With time, Shoshana came to recognize the benefits of leaning on others and benefiting from their sincere sentiments (e.g., “It’s OK to decline the big project or to seek a lightened workload”) and logistical help (e.g., making sure her golden retriever got his daily walks). With dependence came willingness to confide. Upon making the switch that permitted her to count on people, she concluded. “It’s funny; the last thing I would ever imagine is enjoying this sense of indebtedness to family and neighbors,” she told me. “Yet now I realize that I was missing something important in my life.”
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