Saturday, April 3, 2010

Compassionate Independence

I remember in Spain when many of my American classmates would gawk in ridicule about how their host siblings were commonly over the age of 20, sometimes 30, and still live at home with their mother. "Haven't they learned how to get a job?" was always the mocking question they'd ask amongst themselves.

But to me living with your parents wasn't strange at all. At least in Asian families children stay with the family well beyond their 20s. I remember when one of my best friends from high school was well into his 20's, he chose to move with his mother from their cramped 2-bedroom apartment to a larger 2400-sq ft home, but he didn't do it because he needed a place to stay, he did it to help pay the mortgage. The idea is that your parents cared for you as you grew older, and in return, you care for them as they do the same.

But that's not to say there isn't value in independence. An inability to separate from another person - your parents included - can be as much of a debility to personal growth just as much as an immunity to your loved ones. But I think independence, particularly in the United States, is propagated irresponsibly. We're told to be alone, but never taught how to be alone. This is seen in the distinction between "loneliness" and "aloneness".

The physical state of isolation is present in both conditions, but in "loneliness", we're still seeking companionship. We do this in our need to always go out with friends, to throw parties every weekend, even the need to be married or be in a relationship so quickly. The acceptance of other people somehow translates to a validation to our existence.

"Aloneness", on the other hand, is finding satisfaction in solitude. It is the comfort of being by yourself and appreciating the time for time itself. It is taking every single beautiful thing this world has to offer and appreciating it's simple existence, just as the world appreciates yours. That's what it really boils down to: having the confidence and security in knowing that you mean something in this world, regardless whether or not someone tells you so.

The problem particularly in this country is that we're filled with a false sense of confidence and we view conceding to the will of the collective as a weakness. It's viewed as an attack on independence. We're constantly bombarded with the message that we need to be leaders, we need to be independent, we need to be ourselves, yet we're never really made aware to the fact that leaders are defined by their masses, independence only exists in comparison to some level of conformity, and distinguishing ourselves from a crowd can only happen if that crowd is there to begin with.

The point isn't that these supposedly revered traits of greatness are only attained by few, but rather that we need to understand both to become a complete person. It is relentlessly beating this sense of independence into our hearts and minds that ironically causes the need that same ideology is working against. You see this in the supposedly "successful" people of the world. The celebrity has the need for attention, the multimillionaire has the need for money, the politician has the need for power. Most of it is merely for the approval of others, just through different means.

My mother told me that true contentment in solitude comes at the realization of happiness from helping others. I mean truly helping others. In addition to the false sense of independence in this country, we also promote a false sense of altruism as well. I find it strange that nearly every socially conscious person I've met wants to start a non-profit organization, but never wants to be part of one working towards the same goal. It's like an independent approach towards solving a shared issue.

Rather true contentment and true altruism and in some cases, true philanthropy, begins at reducing our own ego, our pride, and our yearning to own and do things independently. It comes at a very sincere realization of lessening the desires in our own lives and reducing the consumption that results from that selfishness. Sometimes even just learning how to be less focused on yourself and more on others, is enough, at times more, than any amount of time or money you could donate.

It seems that only the side of individuality is adored and sought after, yet this disconnection with ourselves and our communities explains many of the chronic problems we suffer from and also cause in the world. Most opinion polls report the United States to be the world's unhappiness nation despite all the gadgetry we're made to believe bring us joy. People still feel alone and unloved despite all the "romance" flourishing in popular media. Sadly, we've created an empty existence and passed it off as a superficial state of happiness. The problem is that we've never been told to examine ourselves internally. We've never properly learned how to be alone.

*Thanks to my mother and Jamil for inspiring this post.


Jacob Galfano said...

I find it strange that nearly every socially conscious person I've met wants to start a non-profit organization, but never wants to be part of one working towards the same goal. It's like an independent approach towards solving a shared issue.

This is really interesting to think about -- and, for me, captures the essence of your post more than your other points about independence.

I think it's important to distinguish pride in independence from responsibility in independence -- the former might scoff at needing help to succeed where the latter might see that help as an unfair burden on our loved ones.

Unknown said...

I totally dig this post. :) Well written, Nick.