Personal Independence

IN proportion as every organ of the human body is free to perform its own functions, unimpeded by any other, the body is perfectly healthy and vigorous; and, in proportion as every organ of the body is receiving its proper support from every other, the body as a whole is vigorous, and in the full use of its powers.

These are two self-evident axioms, and, if we think of them quietly for a little while, they will lead us to a clear realization of true personal independence.

The lungs cannot do the work of the heart, but must do their own work, independently and freely; and yet, if the lungs should suddenly say to themselves: “This is all nonsense, our depending upon the heart in this way; we must be independent! It is weak to depend upon the other organs of the body!” And if they should repel the blood which the heart pumped into them, with the idea that they could manage the body by themselves, and were not going to be weakly dependent upon the heart, the stomach, or any other organ, — if the lungs should insist upon taking this independent stand, they would very soon stop breathing, the heart would stop beating, the stomach would stop digesting, and the body would die. Or, suppose that the heart should refuse to supply the lungs with the blood necessary to provide oxygen; the same fatal result would of course follow. Or, even let us imagine all the organs of the body agreeing that it is weak to be dependent, and asserting their independence of each other. At the very instant that such an agreement was carried into effect, the body would perish.

Then, on the other hand, — to reverse the illustration, if the lungs should feel that they could help the heart’s work by attending to the circulation of the blood, if the heart should insist that it could inhale and exhale better than the lungs, and should neglect its own work in order to advise and assist the lungs in the breathing, the machinery of the body would be in sad confusion for a time, and would very soon cease altogether.

This imaginary want of real independence in the working of the different organs of the body can be illustrated by the actual action of the muscles. How often we see a man working with his mouth while writing, when he should be only using his hands; or, working uselessly with his left hand, when what he has to do only needs the right! How often we see people trying to listen with their arms and shoulders! Such illustrations might be multiplied indefinitely, and, in all cases, the false sympathy of contraction in the parts of the body which are not needed for the work in hand comes from a wrong dependence, from the fact that the pats of the body that are not needed, are officiously dependent upon those that are properly active, instead of minding their own affairs and saving energy for their own work.

The wholesome working of the human organism, is so perfect in its analogy to the healthy relations of members of a community, that no reader should pass it by without very careful thought.

John says: “I am not going to be dependent upon any man. I am going to live my own life, in my own way, as I expect other men to live theirs. If they will leave me alone, I will leave them alone,” and John flatters himself that he is asserting his own strength of personality, that he is emphasizing his individuality. The truth is that John is warping himself every day by his weak dependence upon his own prejudices. He is unwilling to look fairly at another main’s opinion for fear of being dependent upon it. He is not only warping himself by his “independence,” which is puffed up with the false appearance of strength, but he is robbing his fellow-men; for he cannot refuse to receive from others without putting it out of his own power to give to others. Real giving and receiving must be reciprocal in spirit, and absolutely dependent upon each other.

It is a curious and a sad study to watch the growing slavery of such “independent” people.

James, on the other hand, thinks he cannot do anything without asking another man’s advice or getting another man’s help; sometimes it is always the same man, sometimes it is one of twenty different men. And so, James is steadily losing the power of looking life in the face, and of judging for himself whether or not to take the advice of others from a rational principle, and of his own free will, and he is gradually becoming a parasite, — an animal which finally loses all its organs from lack of use, so that only its stomach remains, — and has, of course, no intelligence at all. The examples of such men as James are much more numerous than might be supposed. We seldom see them in such flabby dependence upon the will of an individual as would make them conspicuous; but they are about us every day, and in large numbers, in their weak dependence upon public opinion, — their bondage to the desire that other men should think well of them. The human parasites that are daily feeding on social recognition are unconsciously in the process of losing their individuality and their intelligence; and it would be a sad surprise to them if they could see themselves clearly as they really are.

Public opinion is a necessary and true protection to the world as it is, because if it were not for public opinion, many men and women would dare to be more wicked than they are. But that is no reason why intelligent men should order their lives on certain lines just because their neighbors do, just because it is the custom. If the custom is a good custom, it can be followed intelligently, and because we recognize it as good, but it should not be followed only because our neighbors follow it. Then, if our neighbors follow the custom for the same intelligent reason, it will bring us and them into free and happy sympathy.

Neither should a man hesitate to do right, positively and fearlessly, in the face of the public assertion that he is doing wrong. He should, of course, look himself over many times to be sure that he is doing right, according to his own best light, and he should be willing to change his course of action just as fearlessly if he finds he has made a mistake; but, having once decided, he will respect public opinion much more truly by acting quietly against it with an open mind, than he would if he refused to do right, because he was afraid of what others would think of him. To defy carelessly the opinion of others is false independence, and has in it the elements of fear, however fearless it may seem; but to respectfully ignore it for the sake of what is true, and good, and useful, is sure to enlarge the public heart and to help, it eventually to a clearer charity. Individual dependence and individual independence are absolutely necessary to a well-adjusted balance. It is just as necessary to the individual men of a community as to the individual organs of the body.

It is not uncommon for a person to say: “I must give up So-and-so; I must not see so much of him, — I am getting so dependent upon him.”

If the apparent dependence on a friend is due to the fact that he has valuable principles to teach which may take time to learn, but which lead in the end to greater freedom, then to give up such companionship, out of regard for the criticism of others would, of course, be weakness and folly itself. It is often our lot to incur the severest blame for the very weaknesses which we have most entirely overcome.

Many people will say: “I should rather be independently wrong than dependently right,” and others will admire them for the assertion. But the truth is, that whenever one is wrong, one is necessarily dependent, either upon man or devil; but it is impossible to be dependently right, excepting for the comparatively short time that we may need for a definite, useful purpose. If a man is right in his mental and moral attitude merely because his friend is right, and not because he wants the right himself, it will only be a matter of time before his prop is taken away, and he will fall back into his own moral weakness. Of course, a man can begin to be right because his friend is right; but it is because there is something in him which responds to the good in his friend. Strong men are true to their friendships and convictions, in spite of appearances and the clamor of their critics.

True independence is never afraid of appearing dependent, and true dependence leads always to the most perfect independence.

We cannot, really enjoy our own freedom without the growing desire and power to help other people to theirs. Our own love of independence will bring with it an equal love for the independence of our neighbor; and our own love of true dependence — that is, of receiving wise help from any one through whom it may be sent — will give us an equal love for giving help wherever it will be welcome. Our respect for our own independence will make it impossible that we should insist upon trying to give help to others where it is not wanted; and our own respect for true dependence will give us a loving charity, a true respect for those who are necessarily and temporarily dependent, and teach us to help them to their true balance.

We should learn to keep a margin of reserve for ourselves, and to give the same margin to others. Not to come too near, but to be far enough away from every one to give us a true perspective. There is a sort of familiarity that arises sometimes between friends, or even mere acquaintances, which closes the door to true friendship or to real acquaintance. It does not bring people near to one another, but keeps them apart. It is as if men thought that they could be better friends by bumping their heads together.

Our freedom comes in realizing that all the energy of life should come primarily from a love of principles and not of persons, excepting as persons relate to principles. If one man finds another living on principles that are higher than his own, it means strength and freedom for him to cling to his friend until he has learned to understand and live on those principles himself. Then if he finds his own power for usefulness and his own enjoyment of life increased by his friendship, it would indeed be weak of him to refuse such companionship from fear of being dependent. The surest and strongest basis of freedom in friendship is a common devotion to the same fundamental principles of life; and this insures reciprocal usefulness as well as personal independence. We must remember that the very worst and weakest dependence is not a dependence upon persons, but upon a sin, whether the sin be fear of public opinion or some other more or less serious form of bondage.

The only true independence is in obedience to law, and if, to gain the habit of such obedience, we need a helping hand, it is truly independent for us to take it.

We all came into the world alone, and we must go out of the world alone, and yet we are exquisitely and beautifully dependent upon one another.

A great German philosopher has said that there should be as much space between the atoms of the body, in relation to its size, as there is between the stars in relation to the size of the universe, — and yet every star is dependent upon every other star, as every atom in the body is dependent upon every other atom for its true life and action. This principle of balance in the macrocosm and the microcosm is equally applicable to any community of people, whether large or small. The quiet study and appreciation of it will enable us to realize the strength of free dependence and dependent freedom in the relation of persons to one another. The more truly we can help one another in freedom toward the dependence upon law, which is the axis of the universe, the more wholesome and perfect will be all our human relations.

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