The Illusion of Independence (or Why We Need Each Other)

The feeling of “I don’t need you” is based on an illusion. In fact, we do need each other. Despite being able to pay for everything we need, we do not feel satisfied; we do not feel like all our needs have actually been met. We feel empty, hungry. And because this hunger is present as much in the rich as in the poor, I know it must be for something that money cannot buy. Perhaps there is hope for community after all, even in the midst of a monetized society. Perhaps it lies in those needs that bought things cannot satisfy. Perhaps the very things we need the most are absent from the products of mass production, cannot be quantified or commoditized, and are therefore inherently outside the money realm.

The financially independent person is not bereft of community because he meets all of his needs via money — he is bereft of community because he is not meeting his needs except through money. More precisely, he is trying to use money to meet needs that money cannot meet. Money, impersonal and generic, can by itself only meet needs that are the same. It can meet the need for calories, X grams of protein, Y milligrams of vitamin C — anything that can be standardized and quantified. But it cannot by itself meet the need for beautiful food prepared by someone who cares. Money can meet the need for shelter, but it cannot by itself meet the need for a home that is an organic extension of oneself. Money can buy virtually any implement, but not one that is attached to the story of a maker you know personally and who knows you. Money can buy songs, but not a song sung specifically to you. Even if you hire a band to play in your home, there is no guarantee, no matter how much you pay, that they will really sing to you and not just pretend to. If your mother sang you lullabies, or if you have ever been serenaded by a lover, you know what I am talking about and how deep a need it fills. Sometimes it even happens at a concert, when the band isn’t just putting on an act but is actually playing for that audience, or really, to that audience. Each such performance is unique, and its special, magical quality vanishes in recording. “You had to be there.” True, we may pay money to attend such an event, but we receive more than we paid for when the band is truly playing to us. We do not feel that the transaction is complete and closed, that all obligations are canceled out, as in a pure money transaction. We feel a lingering connection, because a giving has transpired. No life can be rich without such experiences, which might ride the vehicle of money transactions, but which no amount of money can guarantee.

The situation in America, the most highly monetized society the world has ever known, is this: some of our needs are vastly overfulfilled while others go tragically unmet. We in the richest societies have too many calories even as we starve for beautiful, fresh food; we have overlarge houses but lack spaces that truly embody our individuality and connectedness; media surround us everywhere while we starve for authentic communication. We are offered entertainment every second of the day but lack the chance to play. In the ubiquitous realm of money, we hunger for all that is intimate, personal, and unique. We know more about the lives of Michael Jackson, Princess Diana, and Lindsay Lohan than we do about our own neighbors, with the result that we really don’t know anyone, and are barely known by anyone either.

The things we need the most are the things we have become most afraid of, such as adventure, intimacy, and authentic communication. We avert our eyes and stick to comfortable topics. We hold it as a virtue to be private, to be discreet, so that no one sees our dirty laundry — or even our clean laundry: our undergarments are considered unsightly, a value strangely reflected in the widespread American prohibition on hanging laundry outdoors to dry. Life has become a private affair. We are uncomfortable with intimacy and connection, which are among the greatest of our unmet needs today. To be truly seen and heard, to be truly known, is a deep human need. Our hunger for it is so omnipresent, so much a part of our experience of life, that we no more know what it is we are missing than a fish knows it is wet. We need way more intimacy than nearly anyone considers normal. Always hungry for it, we seek solace and sustenance in the closest available substitutes: television, shopping, pornography, conspicuous consumption — anything to ease the hurt, to feel connected, or to project an image by which we might be seen and known, or at least see and know ourselves.

Community, which in today’s parlance usually means proximity or a mere network, is a much deeper kind of connection than that: it is a sharing of one’s being, an expansion of one’s self. To be in community is to be in personal, interdependent relationship, and it comes with a price: our illusion of independence, our freedom from obligation. You can’t have it both ways. If you want community, you must be willing to be obligated, dependent, tied, attached. You will give and receive gifts that you cannot just buy somewhere. You will not be able to easily find another source. You need each other.