The illusion of independence

What is an atomic individual? An entity that is atomic, in-divide-able—a person who exists independently of others. Is there such a thing?

It is interesting how we of the “atomic” age have come to believe so deeply in the idea that one person can be independent in every conceivable way from other people. Accompanying this is the assumption that independence is equal to freedom, and therefore preferable to dependence.

This, however, is a deeply, deeply flawed notion. There is no such thing as an atomic individual. No person in history, from Julius Caesar to Ned the humble shoemaker to Bill Gates, has ever got there by him or herself. Ever. Unless somebody wants to leave society at, say, 12 years old, live in the woods, and fend for him or herself like Grizzly Adams or some Taoist sage, then he or she is not independent. How far would Bill Gates have got without his parents, his friends, his doctor, his mailman?

If you live in society, you depend on other people. It doesn’t matter how rich, famous, or important you might think you are. No news here, right? Right, but somehow we manage to forget most of the time just how completely interdependent we all are.

Modern economic and political thinking carries the bizarre idea that although members of a society depend on one another for goods and services, they can more or less conduct their business completely independently of each other, neither noticing nor caring for the needs of other people. Somehow the market will sort this all out and set it up so that every individual benefits.

Any 10-year-old can see the flaw in this equation. A group of individuals living together but ignoring each other’s needs is an anarchy.

This is not an arrangement that will lead to greater freedom, health, or happiness. It will lead to great technical innovation, for a while, until society crumbles because nobody knows how to relate to one another or are preoccupied with dominating other people.

This isn’t rocket science. We depend on other people—not just for goods and services but for our well-being and our survival. Why do we pretend this is not the case? Why are we afraid of dependence? Sure, depending on people means asking for help. It means a certain amount of trust and vulnerability. Likewise, being depended upon means we have to help each other out and occasionally do things for other people—even when we may not get along with them. Interdependence does not mean a restriction of freedom. In fact, when we can acknowledge it, interdependence ensures our freedom by reminding people why they shouldn’t take advantage of other people (because they would ultimately end up hurting themselves).

Why not accept and revel in our interdependence? What the heck else are we living for?

Family, friends, even strangers—other people give our lives meaning, as long as we make the effort to live harmoniously with them. Complete independence means complete separateness, which means complete loneliness.

Live to be with others. Strive to bring joy to every interaction you have with strangers and friends alike—the grocer, your mother, that guy that flipped you off on the street the other day.

Connection and dependence are literally all there ever really is to human existence. Other things—progress, innovation, material success—are fleeting and empty.

They are figments of our own imaginations, and they will bring no comfort when a loved one moves away, on a rainy and cold Tuesday afternoon, or when you lie on your deathbed and contemplate your life and all you have been.

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