Thursday, July 4, 2013

Happy 237th Birthday!

Photo courtesy of mrsdkrebs via flickr
As we celebrate Independence Day, I'm finding my thoughts returning to our interdependence, and our dependence on each other.

In this day and age we are so proud of our supposed self-sufficiency, our ability to do it all ourselves.  I'm afraid that we neglect to recognize how intertwined our lives really are.   No one is an island, as John Donne said centuries ago, and I believe that's only gotten truer since then.  Much of our ability to navigate this life successfully depends on others, both those we know and love, and those we've never met.  Whether it's loving parents who gave us a solid start in life, a teacher who saw something special in us and encouraged us to pursue a particular path, good citizens who pay their taxes that fund roads and other public works projects, or air traffic controllers who ensure that the plane we're traveling in lands safely, other people influence us and our lives in too many ways to list.

We often think of dependence as weakness, and taken to extremes it certainly is, but I believe that being able to rely on others and have others rely on you is not only a strength, but a necessity for building a healthy community.  Even the concluding sentence of the Declaration of Independence itself gives a nod to this imperative as the signers "mutually pledge to each other" their lives, fortunes, and honor.

"We, The People" isn't some nebulous, theoretical monolith.  It's us.  It's made up of millions of daily small interactions between individuals: a supportive smile to the mother with her four active children at library story-time, a bank teller helping a frazzled customer solve a problem, a busy nurse spending a few extra minutes with a patient, a family taking a plate of cookies over to a new neighbor.  These interactions create a web of interdependence and reliance, and are what creates community.

Of course, this isn't a purely American trait; in fact, there are several cultures around the world that take care of each other much better than those of us in modern American society do.  But we Americans claim to believe in improvement and advancement and in being exceptional.  Sometimes we believe that we already are exceptional and that blinds us to our faults, but on the whole we are a people who recognize that we can do better than we've done in the past.

So if you'd like to give the United States of America a birthday present this Independence Day, my humble suggestion is to find a way to contribute to building your interdependent community.  Get to know the names of the children in your neighborhood, or volunteer at the local homeless shelter. Maybe simply give the grumpy cashier at the store the benefit of the doubt and a smile, or offer to take care of your friend's cat when she's out of town.  Recognize and acknowledge the impact that others have on your life, and be grateful that we can depend on each other.

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