In Praise of Interdependence

For the past 3 weeks I’ve been working from home because of the COVID-19 quarantine situation.  For the first week, I was elated.  I slept late, worked in my yoga pants, and did little projects around the house between patient phone calls.  During the second week, I was less excited about it, but I was OK.  Then, the third week came, and the loneliness and isolation of three weeks by myself in my one-bedroom apartment hit me hard.  Like a caged tiger, I’ve been pacing around my living room, and peering through the black wrought iron of my security gate out into the quad outside my front door.

So, when my friend, Jeannine, contacted me yesterday and asked me to come over to her place for a social distancing dinner in her backyard, I was so excited I could barely contain myself.  When I got to her place, I had to swallow my need to hug both Jeannine and her husband, Paul.  Everything seemed hilarious.  When the chicken that Paul was barbecuing caught on fire and he couldn’t figure out how to rescue it, I laughed myself silly.  It didn’t matter to me that I might not have anything to eat.  I’d figure that out.  (The chicken ended up being perfectly cooked, by the way).  When we played Mexican Train, I felt nothing but joy and camaraderie, even though I lost miserably all three times.

It got me thinking about the value of community.  There’s a strange push-pull in American culture about needing others.  We definitely have a hero complex.  All you have to do is check out our film-making choices to see it.  How many incarnations of the strong and exceptional person saves the world alone are even possible?  I’ve grown to hate these hero movies.  They set up unrealistic expectations of self-reliance, fearlessness, and invulnerability.

On the other hand, American culture is one of the most extroverted cultures on earth.  Being highly social, overtly friendly, and always having something to say, are highly prized American personality traits.  As a Highly Sensitive Person, who needs alone time to re-charge, enjoys solo creative projects, and freezes around inauthentic people, I’ve felt defective for most of my life.  Telling myself that my need for solitude, my inability to come up with interesting things to say in large groups of people, and my lack of an emotional filter were weird, I’ve spent a lot of time pretending.  It’s only within the past year or so that I’ve realized that being wired this way is OK, and I’ve given myself permission to be my authentic self.  What a relief!

With pressure to be highly social and friendly, but also be a fearless lone savior, I think we’re all a little confused about how much community is the right amount.  I’m constantly struck by how many people tell me that they feel like they should be OK with being alone, and that the deep need that they feel to belong is wrong somehow.  They tell me that it’s a sign of codependence, and that they need to work on their unhealthy coping strategy of being with others to avoid feelings of loneliness.  Usually this comes up while the person is grieving the loss of a loved one.  Three weeks into grieving, people believe that they should be over it already.

This mindset never fails to sadden me.  What a sorry state of affairs to believe, as a society, that needing people is a sign of mental illness.   How terrible to think that grieving is somehow a weakness.  I explain to these people that codependence doesn’t mean what they think it means.  I tell them that codependence is actually a description of people that put their own needs aside in order to support others in an unhealthy and self destructive way.  I’m not talking about self-sacrifice for the greater good.  I’m talking about harming oneself because of an inability to set or respect boundaries.  Codependence is the person in a domestically violent relationship who doesn’t leave and makes excuses for the partner’s behavior.  It’s the spouse of the alcoholic who constantly cleans up horrible alcohol-induced messes, pays DUI fines, and apologizes to friends who have been subjected to drunken rages.

Needing love, community and support is completely normal and healthy.  We’ve evolved over millennia as tribal creatures.  Some of us need smaller tribes than others, but we all have a need to belong, to be understood, and to be loved, and that is a good thing.  Society would fall apart if humans didn’t naturally organize themselves into communal groups.  Where would we be if someone didn’t grow crops and share them with the rest of us?  What would happen if nobody cared for the sick, or educated our children?  It would be a much poorer life, indeed, if we weren’t the interdependent creatures that we are.

Interdependence is the exact opposite of codependence.  When we’re interdependent, we help, support, and care for the people around us, just as they help, support, and care for us in return.  Nobody is harmed in this reciprocal relationship, and everyone’s lives are enriched.  Interdependent relationships are a sign of mental and emotional health.  In order to have them, we have to be able to set the boundaries of what is OK and not OK in how we treat each other.  We also need to be able to respect those boundaries when they are set.  This type of relationship takes maturity, kindness, and compassion, and it is one of the most beautiful pieces of the great jigsaw puzzle of what makes us human.

One of my favorite things about the modern world is the web of global interdependence that allows me to buy goods from across the globe and have them in my home in a couple of days.  I love that I can tap into recordings that were made in Russia or India at the touch of a button, or that I can get on a plane and be in Italy in less than a day.  If I want to, I can buy a book written in another language, and then translated into my own, and absorb the ideas of another culture and another mind.  The more that we share ideas with each other, the more we understand each other, and the more that we see how much we are the same as humans no matter where we were born or which language we speak.

I know that my pacing loneliness is a result of a breakdown in interdependence.  I also know that toilet paper shortages, and the fact that I had to buy flour and yeast on, because I couldn’t find it anywhere else, in order to make the bread that is currently rising in my kitchen, is a result of a breakdown in interdependence.  I fear anything that threatens interdependence and understanding between humans, such as walls between nations, isolationism, or nationalism.

While I understand that sometimes we have to be alone to protect ourselves, to lick our wounds, and to heal, my hope is that these times of isolation are brief, and that we don’t end up as a world full of angsty teenagers hiding in their bedrooms playing video games with “keep out” signs on the door. When the danger of COVID-19 is passed, my hope for the world is that we will be brave enough to re-open to each other as a world full of humans who struggled together through something terrifying. I hope that we can be united in the knowledge that nobody is to blame for it because sometimes shitty things just happen because life is hard.  And yet, it is the hardest times that can hone us into the best humans if we are able to give the experience meaning.  May the meaning be love, kindness, compassion and community.

Below are some links for information about codependence and interdependence.  Two wonderful books about overcoming codependence are Codependent No More by Melody Beattie, and Facing Codependence by Pia Mellody.  Pia Mellody’s book was the first book I ever read about codependence, and it opened up a whole new way of thinking about healthy relationships for me.

Ten Articles About Codependence

How to Build a Relationship Built on Interdependence


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