Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Independent? Yeah, right.

In honor of the 4th of July, some of my thoughts on independence.

Remember all those “rags to riches” stories we covered in high school? They represented the pull yourself up by the boot straps mindset that characterized the United States in its infancy. The American dream immigrants absorbed was that if they worked hard enough and relied upon themselves, they could achieve prosperity. And to many that was the case.

That self-reliant mentality of determination has become a major thread in the fabric of our culture. We want our welfare mothers to stop needing governmental support by sheer force of their will. WE want our homeless to find jobs and get themselves off the street. And, of course, we still have “rags to riches” stories such as the Will Smith film “Pursuit of Happiness.” Nothing captures our attention more than someone triumphing over monumental obstacles propelled forward by the force of their own spirit to achieve affluent success. Nothing garners our censure more than somebody who wants aid we have judged they don’t need.

Like many disabled people, I was raised on the notion that I should always strive for independence needing as little as possible from others. To a large extent this has served me well whether in school or life. But – and you knew one was coming – there is a flipside to it that gets in my way.

I loath asking for help. Actually, I feel as though I have failed at being independent even when I am simply asking to be told when the walk light turns green. I should be able to take care of myself without needing anything. Ever. Furthermore, when I ask for help, I know I am perpetuating the idea that disabled people are helpless. So, not only am I flunking Independence 101 but I’m screwing up the world for other disabled people. Ridiculous? Yes. I never claimed to be rational 24/7.

I used to console myself with the concept of interdependence. Within the disabled community, the argument is made that nobody is truly independent as people rely on others to grow the food they consume, make their clothing, build cars… The list goes on. Disabled people simply need less common forms of help. The human race is interdependent forming a giant network where one person fills another’s needs and that person goes on to sustain another. No individual could exist in total isolation. Even Tom Hanks needed Wilson. So, if I need help that’s just a part of being human rather than a sign of weakness or failure.

Lately this consoling line of thinking has no power to sooth me. Humans are interdependent and, like the rest of you, I need somebody to harvest the grain and package it for preservation. It seems, however, that within a framework of interdependence, people are mandated to be independent. Nobody is expected to survive without grocery stores and washing machines, but they are required to not need rides to the vet, assistance with grocery shopping, a guide across a crowded room etc. I fall into the category of dependent and it makes me scream. Loudly.

People sometimes try to make me feel better by saying something like, “But, Jen, you can’t see. Of course you need help. Nobody expects you to…” And there is the dreaded word – expects. I don’t want there to be a set of expectations for everyone else and then one for me. Down that road lies my insanity and a set of different and ultimately lower expectations for disabled people. Obviously it’s beneficial when people don’t assume I can see. If it stopped there, that would be fine. However, from that point people tend to make additional assumptions like I cannot give driving directions, cook a meal, or pass physics. Such conjecture results in situations like having to fight to take physics in high school. Besides, who wants to be thought of as less competent? Who wants to constantly need to prove themselves capable? Definitely not me.

I have no idea how to resolve any of this. My logical brain knows there is nothing inherently wrong with needing help – with being dependent on others to survive. Yet I cannot escape my socially ingrained feelings about how if I just tried a little harder, exerted just a little more willpower, pulled on my bootstraps with more strength I could pass Independence 101 and be considered successful.


Mike Croghan said...

Yep, this is definitely one of the major areas in which our culture is fucked up.

Humans are meant to be interdependent, not independent. We are not cats. We're meant to live in community. On a more trivial level, it's *ludicrous* (yet necessary for our consumer culture) that everyone owns their own lawn mower, or rice cooker, or step ladder - and they all sit idle their cupboards or closets 99% of the time, because we know how to shop, but we have no freaking clue how to share. Or, it's ridiculous that people struggle so much with child care arrangements/costs yet the problem is assumed to belong entirely to the parents and maybe their parents/siblings - not their neighbors, not their faith community, not their workplace.

Or, our official public policy on health care at almost every level is: Can't afford to be shafted by the insurance companies? Gee, we're sorry you failed. We're sorry that you're probably going to die for want of preventative care, go bankrupt on the way to death while trying to pay by yourself (at no-collective-bargaining sky high rates) for curative options that are too little to late, and cost the public way more if than we'd just provided health coverage for you. At least we're clear that this was entirely an individual issue, and YOU failed to make enough money for insurance, and that's NOT our problem.

Anyway, sorry. Yes, the individualism in our culture is abhorrent. I'm sorry it makes life extra hard for you by screwing with your brain. I hold out a little hope that given the interconnectedness of younger generations (via a zillion electronic media), they won't so much put up with this shit in the future.

Jen said...

Individualism. I couldn't think of that word while I was writing the entry. :)

Your list of all the ways our society's unwillingness to embrace interdependence is problematic blows my mind. It's also hits the nail on the head.

I worry that future generations will not know how to carry on a face-to-face conversation, though. I'm not sure what role social isolation will play in perpetuating individualism.