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Independence, interdependence and disability

From “These New Old Traditions” a lovely essay by BlueJay:

There is a theme that reverberates throughout the writings of DIY’ers, off-the-gridders, and the like—it’s the notion of independence. There is a sort of pioneer spirit that drives us to train our bodies and minds to be able to go it alone. Some take pride in leaving jobs where they were beholden to other co-workers and bosses and now “work for themselves.” Others build their own shelters, ditch cars for bikes or till their own soil.

In school, I am learning about how to work with those who are disabled. There is a tool in occupational therapy called “activity analysis.” In this exercise, the occupational therapist (OT) breaks down an activity into parts in order to see exactly what skills are required to successfully wash the dishes, for example. There are motor skills required for standing at the sink and lifting plates and cups. There are cognitive skills required for knowing how to order the stages of the task. There are sensory and perceptual skills required for balance and regulating water temperature. There may even be social skills required if you are washing dishes with someone else. If you are like me, then you wash the dishes many times a day, without much (conscious) thought to how you are employing all of these skills simultaneously.

But there are other activities I do that are more of a challenge. Sometimes, when I haul my bike up two narrow flights of stairs or hang the laundry from a line hooked to the ceiling in my apartment, I think about how hard my body is working to support my “independence.” Then there are the multi-step, far more complicated tasks I do, am learning to do, or want to learn to do such as canning fruit or earning a professional degree or building a cabin. I often take it for granted that my body will carry me through these tasks and that my mind will be flexible and receptive.

So much of what I need in order to achieve these goals is invisible to me. To ride my bike I need strong legs. To hang the laundry I need to be confident in my ability to balance on a step ladder. To earn the degree I need to get to school, I need to use the machine to buy a metro card, I need to sit in class for six hours a day, I need to take notes. I feel like I do a lot of these things on my own, but it’s not really true.

I think this is a really important point. At one of the talks I gave in Charlottesville last week, a woman stood up and observed that what I was talking about doing sounded too hard for her, that she and her husband in their 60s just didn’t want to work that hard. And my observation is that sometimes my work is hard – just as everyone sometimes has to work hard. But what I like about my work is that there’s a place for everyone in it – when Eric’s grandparents lived with us, they certainly couldn’t chop wood or carry water – but they didn’t need to. They could rock babies like nobody’s business, shell peas and keep me company while I tended the babies. Meanwhile, I could help them with the things that were hard for them. One would imagine that a woman with three children under 5 and two elders, one seriously failing, the other with probably the average limitations of someone in their 80s would be more work – but it was less, or perceptually less in many ways than my working alone with no company but the children.

I hear all the time the idea that one doesn’t want to be dependent on other people – the idea is expressed in our society by the idea that we should all save a lot of money, invested in the stock market, to make us “independent” if we get old, or less than perfectly able bodied. But of course, the stock market makes us dependent too – dependent on markets and governments and other people to invest where we have. People talk about independence as emerging from their ability to pay people to help meet physical needs if they become old or disabled – imagining that an employer-employee/resident-caregiver relationship is inherently more equitable than a family dependency.

But there is no escaping dependency in the greater scheme of things – we depend on systems that break down sometimes whether in our bodies or out in the world. At times in every person’s life, unless you are one of those rare folks who drops dead in full health (but that has its downside too) we will depend on another – sometimes for short periods when we are temporarily ill or disabled, sometimes for whole lives or for long parts of one. Coming to terms with the idea of mutual dependency may be as essential as learning to be independent of institutions we deplore.

I say this often. Every one of us will be dependent at one or more times in our lives. Every one of us will probably need to give and offer care, and also to learn to accept it. Learning to come to terms with this is simply a part of our lives, a part of our human condition. Embedding ourselves in systems of reciprocity, kindness and respect is the only possible answer – there is no escaping the reality of needing others.

Sharon

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