The cultural narrative of individualism runs strong in our country — the idea that we can achieve success through great individual efforts independent of the people around us. This narrative has led to some amazing feats and a bootstrapping national work ethic, but I’m not sure it’s a healthy one. Or even reflective of our lived experience.
In light of your own closest relationships, does individualism reflect the reality of your own life? How can we claim to be rugged individuals when the people who mean the most to us are fundamental to the richness we experience in this life?
But we kind of knew this already. If the effects of COVID-19 have made anything clear, it is that we all need each other to make life meaningful. We need others to live well; our communities depend on people working together. We are all a part of a beautiful and infinitely interconnected web of relationships that sustain us.
There is something compelling, even enriching, in the human capacity not for independence, but for interdependence. Interdependence, of course, is just another word for community. “Love,” wrote Thomas Merton, “is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone — we find it with another.”
In other words, we find the meaning of life in interdependence. Community sustains us, but sometimes the hard part is learning how to cultivate it. Here are three places to start.
Interdependence means having people to rely on, so it’s easy to see how important trust is in our networks of relationships. To trust others — and become trustworthy, ourselves — we need to be able to see into the heart. That means developing a skill for conversations that run deeper than the surface-level topics most of us default to.
Relationships run on a currency based on our interior lives, and to connect with others, we need to have something to trade. To find common ground with others, pursue ideas and questions that are important to you, then open up to share those ideas in meaningful conversations.
So what are you interested in? What are the big questions you are asking right now? What lights you up? Give yourself permission to wander in wonder, to do a deep dive into a hobby or topic even if it’s not “productive.” Get to know yourself better and feed the spark you find inside.
This process helps us discover ideas that enrich our lives. We get better at self-reflection through practices like mindfulness and habits of good dialogue that help us think, reflect, listen, and speak more carefully and charitably. Discovering and sharing enriching ideas is a joy — and it builds trust because it reveals what’s important to you.
If we are to discover enriching ideas through dialogue, it’s worth considering the spaces we gather in. Imagine the differences between the conversations that might take place on a long hike in the wilderness, around a campfire, during a concert, at a coffee shop, in a church, at a baseball game. People come together for community in each of these venues, but each setting has its own limits and possibilities.
So mix it up! If coffeeshop meetings might lend themselves to conversations about work, school, and dating, campfire conversations under the star-lit night sky might open things up to questions about God, morality, and meaning in life. By gathering with others in a variety of venues, we open up more possibilities for deeper connections.
The best people to know are those who make us better, ourselves. But finding people who enrich our lives is a two-way street. There must be a mutuality to the relationship, a give and take. If you want a friend to lean on, you have to be able to be that friend to them, too. That’s the definition of interdependence.
These kinds of deep friendships not only survive the stormy seasons of life, they grow stronger because of them. We are meant for such relationships, and we can find friends like these anywhere. They don’t have to be in our age group or share our viewpoints or backgrounds. Those commonalities can help, but differences can be even more enriching. In fact, the more we surround ourselves with people who have different perspectives, the more we are challenged to reconsider our own ideas and grow.
We find our destiny and fulfillment in the joy of interdependence, in community, in deep and committed friendships. Missing those kinds of connections is a great sorrow in life, and the narrative of individualism only makes it worse. But we can do something about it by taking intentional steps to form friendships that call the best out of us.