The Definition of Independence
I sat across from the occupational therapist, going through his checklist and asking the standard questions. It was my last visit to the therapy center I had attended for 16 years. She was going through what she called the “release documents” which was to say that I was leaving the center, never to be a client again. “How have you improved in your independence since coming to this institution? Are you now able to live a fully independent life?” It was a ridiculous question on several levels. First of all I was approximately 9 months old when I first started going to therapy at the clinic. I would hope I had improved from a baby who could not sit up by herself in the past 16 years. But to further complicate the situation the therapist was asking for a definite answer to a rather nebulous question.
Do I live a fully independent life?
What the heck does that mean, “fully independent?” There are plenty of able-bodied people who aren’t at all “fully independent.” There’s the girl who is in a co-dependent relationship with her boyfriend and can’t leave him at any price. There’s the man who lacks self-confidence and therefore relies on his wife to make the decisions that he cannot take initiative for. Co-dependency is everywhere. What about the woman who can’t shovel her driveway when it’s full of snow, or calls her daughter every time the DVD player starts flashing 12:00?
In our society today, we’re not just dependent on people. Stuff ties us down and paralyzes us in an extreme way that most of us don’t recognize. SO often I hear, “I can’t go anywhere without my pillow,” or, “I don’t want to be away from wi-fi for longer than 3 hours. I need to know what’s going on.” The comforts of the home which we insist on are in their own way a confirmation of our dependency on things outside of ourselves. They tie us down, make it difficult to move at a moment’s notice, and close options and opportunities that might occur yet ask us to travel away from our home with all the comfortable stuff.
A good friend of mine is a philosophy professor up in Leeds and she asked me one day why I seemed to have this obsession with independence. According to her, none of us are independent. We can’t survive on our own. We need to go the grocery store and buy flour made by some farmer we’ve never even laid eyes on. I guess it depends on how you define independence more than anything. The word “depend” actually comes from an old Latin and French root meaning “to hang.” Properly defined by the dictionary, depend on or depend upon means “to be controlled or determined by.” Maybe it’s just the way I was brought up, but I can’t help but see the connection between being controlled and hanging oneself at the end of a rope. If the French root of the word is indeed “to hang” it quickly explains my fear of dependency. You are tying yourself to something that will inevitably not allow you to go as far as you want and much like a dog on a leash, eventually the choke collar will nip into your neck.
If we look at where the word comes from and the violent as well as suspenseful image of being controlled, we begin to wonder if independence means not being at the end of a leash. Maybe it’s about knowing that you have options to change your life and live how you would like it to be rather than living a life completely self sufficient? I can’t make my own breakfast or tie my own shoes. If you define independent in this way, my occupational therapist was a failure in her goal of helping me work towards independent living. But if it’s about having options and being able to control your life, seeking help if one method fails you and having the confidence that you will survive one way or the other, then I am independent. I have succeeded in being the driver of my life, being able to take it where I want to go, and ensure that I can meet my goals and dreams. Oddly enough I don’t feel independent during the hours I spend alone, even if I’m able to complete any task I want to. I feel the most independent when my front door revolves with people offering suggestions, borrowing a cup of flour, insisting that we live in a community where we value each other, help each other, and encourage each other to go as far as we possibly can.