Strong and Independent: A Fallacy of Modern Western Culture

Emma Doyle   -  

Independent and strong. In many ways these two words have become interchangeable with each other. Yet I don’t believe the extreme levels of independence we see today have made us stronger or healthier as people. In fact, I believe it’s quite the opposite.

Western culture teaches that in order to “make it” in the world, we should be able to do everything ourselves without relying on anyone else, for fear of being labeled needy, weak and co-dependent. I believe something quite different, and it gives life both to me and beyond me.

I believe God designed us to live communally, interdependently, sharing our resources, skills and love with one another in daily life. We love and serve a Heavenly Father of relationship and connection, evident in his very nature as the Trinity–God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

Jesus lived communally with his disciples. Their varying strengths covered their varying weaknesses, as love does.

I’ve often wondered what the church today would look like if we lived like the church in the book of Acts.

“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.” Acts 4:32

In today’s world, just about any version of that verse being lived out would probably be labeled a cult. The idea of pooling resources and distributing them as needed among our brothers and sisters in Christ grinds against the individualism we have been programmed with since birth.

I’ll admit I honestly don’t know if I could surrender all my money and material assets to someone in charge to distribute at their discretion. While I know everything I have is from my Father and belongs to Him, there is still a large part of me that says, “Mine!” I want to decide how I steward what He has entrusted me with. The interesting thing, however, is that the extreme independence most of us live in today has not been the norm for most of human existence.

For the majority of history, people lived as clans with three or four generations on the same piece of land, if not under one roof. There were multiple adults for children to learn from, and parents had much more support than they often do today in looking after their children because they had aunts, uncles, grandparents and great-grandparents living with them. Old age homes didn’t exist because it was normal that as people aged their children and grandchildren would look after them until they passed.

The industrial revolution brought about the transition from multi-generational communal living to the nuclear family model–one set of parents and their children–which we see today in wealthy, developed countries. Possibly even more common today is a plethora of single parents, with their children being taxied back and forth between homes, further undermining a sense of stability, safety and belonging.

In his well-researched article, author David Brooks writes:

“If you want to summarize the changes in family structure over the past century, the truest thing to say is this: We’ve made life freer for individuals and more unstable for families. We’ve made life better for adults but worse for children. We’ve moved from big, interconnected, and extended families, which helped protect the most vulnerable people in society from the shocks of life, to smaller, detached nuclear families (a married couple and their children), which give the most privileged people in society room to maximize their talents and expand their options. The shift from bigger and interconnected extended families to smaller and detached nuclear families ultimately led to a familial system that liberates the rich and ravages the working-class and the poor.”

As a child of divorce (my father has been married and divorced three times), I can speak first-hand about the instability this created in my life and how that has affected me ever since. At eight years of age I had my sense of home ripped from me and was taken from a familiar, safe environment into an unknown and hostile one. I barely got to see my mother for the next three years.

I was a latch-key kid; one who walked to school with a safety alarm on my backpack or pocket in case some stranger tried to abduct or attack me. From the age of nine I had my own house key because when I came home both my dad and stepmom were gone at work. I became independent and capable at a very young age, making my own lunches for school and doing my laundry.

Moving back to my mom’s at twelve, I helped with cooking meals, dishes and house cleaning. I started babysitting as soon as I could to make my own money, and my first official job was at fourteen years old. Truly, the industrial revolution and the movement of women into the workforce was already shaping my independent life as a teenager.

I didn’t want to work part-time while finishing highschool. I did it out of poverty and necessity. No one was going to give me a handout. I had to make things happen for myself. This understanding made me both capable and confident in my ability to survive. Yet, I have found it can also become crippling, in that we all become islands of loneliness and perpetual exhaustion from doing everything ourselves with no outside help.

Many of us have figured out how to survive with an individualistic worldview, but how many of us are actually thriving under this modern yoke? The old adage, “Many hands make light work”, could be replaced today with, “My hands must do all the work.”

I’ll borrow from Brooks again here, who explains so well where we find ourselves today:

“When hyper-individualism kicked into gear in the 1960s, people experimented with new ways of living that embraced individualistic values. Today we are crawling out from the wreckage of that hyper-individualism—which left many families detached and unsupported—and people are experimenting with more connected ways of living, with new shapes and varieties of extended families.”

As someone who became strong and independent out of necessity, it is not my heart’s desire to live so isolated. My ideal life would be living on a large acreage with other Christians of various generations growing our own organic food, homeschooling our children in a godly manner, pooling our skills and taking turns watching the children so couples can have regular date nights. Single people would be embraced in daily community. Couples would have older couples to mentor them. Parents would have an abundance of support. Children would have a wealth of people loving them and modeling Christ-like values as well as passing on their skills.

My blood family is all spread out, as is the norm in North America. Here in the Kootenays, I’m asking God how He wants to give me family and what connected living can look like in the face of hyper-individualism, both in myself and those I want to do life with. I need God to rewire my brain to have less neuronal connections which automatically ask, “What’s best for me?”, and instead embrace a more collectivist mindset, asking “What’s best for the body of Christ?”

It’s only when we are ready to surrender our selfish ways of being in the world to Jesus that we can experience the richness of laying down our lives for the thriving of the whole body. It’s a journey I will be on the rest of my life. I pray that these words will ignite a hunger in you to surrender any unhealthy independent beliefs and to let Jesus exchange them for a beautiful, fulfilling community in which you will find your family.