No, that’s not just a “pee in someone’s Cheerios” blog title, cynically posted to stir up traffic on the most sacred of our secular American holidays. It’s a legitimate thought that I can and will back up in my post.
But – it certainly got your attention didn’t it?
Such is the power of the greatest of the American myths – the myth of independence. We have spent 235 years building this myth into an unquestioned ideal that the entire world not only knows but actively believes. Immigrants still flock to our shores in large part because they believe with all sincerity that in America, a person is free to live as they please. To live life on one’s own terms. To make something of oneself with hard work, grit and a little luck.
It’s a nice myth. Certainly better than what some other nations are putting out there (“Come to Afghanistan, where if you’re lucky, you won’t be killed by a deranged suicide bomber!”). It’s got a fair amount of truth to it, and there’s more than enough anecdotal evidence in the volumes of American history to provide support. Our past is littered with men and women and children who, because of the freedom and independence guaranteed by our nation, raised themselves up from unfortunate circumstances by determination and sheer force of will. These stories are placed before us as glorious reminders of the need for individual ethic and drive, the proof in the American pudding.
My family has many of these stories. My uncle, who opened his own tire and battery shop and has thrived as an independent businessman for over thirty years. My father, who turned an entry-level computer programming job into a 30 year career as an executive at a Fortune 500 bank. My father-in-law, who took his B.S. in chemistry to two different companies and cranked out over 42 U.S. patents.
But let’s not be sexist. I know a young woman who turned her passion for helping women and children in need into an international humanitarian agency that transforms thousands of lives annually. I know another young woman who turned her passion for singing into a career on Broadway and stages across the nation. And I know of other, quieter female heroes who realized that the role of mother was the best way to shape the future of the free world.
Each of these people were individuals who took their freedoms and independence as valuable gifts and made best use of them. Each of these people can be hailed as examples of the myth of independence.
And yet none of them truly are.
For all of their success, these people are not independent. Not a single one of them made their lives better on their own. Regardless of how hard they worked and how much of their own spirit they put into their efforts, each one was utterly dependent upon others to achieve all they did.
Because that’s the nature of humanity. We rely on one another. We’re not really independent creatures, free to do whatever we wish. Everything we do resonates within a larger context, a larger community. Whether its family, or neighbors, or friends, each one of us is who we are because of the people around us.
And this is not a bad thing. Dependence upon others is not a weakness, it’s not a blight on the soul. It’s a hallmark of maturity and wisdom. My son and I visited my grandfather today, and when we arrived my father was sitting, ever faithful by my grandfather’s side while my grandmother shelled beans she had just picked from her garden. There was nothing bombastic about the scene – I’ve probably seen something similar a thousand times before – but given my grandfather’s health, the interconnectedness of the moment made me realize just how much we are indebted to other people. And how much we should cherish that indebtedness.
I hope that my son grows up to be whomever he wishes to be (as long as it’s not a career in reality TV). I hope that my daughter goes on to be an icon of femininity in all of its fullness. Both will be free to be themselves as long as I’m their father. Yet both will owe profound debts to their mother, their grandparents, their cousins, their Sunday school teachers, their pastors, their public school teachers and countless other people for helping to shape and mold and drive them towards whatever they might become. Such is the nature of life, especially this American life.
Heck, even if my children decide at an early age to run away from civilization and live on the backside of some God-forsaken mountain in the New Mexico desert, they will still never escape their dependence upon other people. Because even if you go Tim McVeigh and live in a van down by the river, the freedom you have to be “independent” comes courtesy of some Marine or Sailor 0r Grunt or Airman or Coastie who took up arms to keep you free.
In a way, I suppose today is the ultimate irony: a nation of people stand together and celebrate their collective independence en masse. We’re all in this together. Thank a soldier, thank a cop, or just walk across the room and hug that person sitting on the couch, because it takes all of us to make this nation what it is. And maybe in doing so, we’ll reflect and think about one of the most powerful truths of our great nation:
The myth of independence belies the truth of community.
Or as some of our forebears so wisely put it: E pluribus unum.
God bless America, and God bless you my friend. Thank you for what you’ve contributed to my life.