On Needing People - Part 1

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(*Disclaimer: I know that needing people is already a topic that I wrote about on this blog, but it’s the thing that’s at the center of my spiritual growth right now so Imma write about it again.)

So three things I know.  One: All of my social, cultural, and emotional training comes from being embedding in a society that prides itself on independence.  Two: My personality is prone toward withdrawal.  Three: I’m in a place and profession where interdependence is necessary for survival.  

Just one question.  Why is Jesus doing this to me?

Independence Culture

I didn’t realize until I started learning cultural intelligence and traveling the world that, as a culture, the United States is on the extreme side.  There are two sides of the pendulum for cultures—one is extreme interdependence and the other is extreme independence.  Some call them individualistic and collectivistic cultures.  This is how they are described by psychologist Dr. Elizabeth Hopper:  "People from individualistic cultures...see themselves as separate from others, define themselves based on their personal traits, and see their characteristics as relatively stable and unchanging. On the other hand, people from collectivistic cultures are more likely to...see themselves as connected to others, define themselves in terms of relationships with others, and see their characteristics as more likely to change across different contexts.”  (More here)

There are good things and bad things about both extremes.  Individualistic cultures encourage hard work, innovation, and self-responsibility.  They (at least in theory) give people who weren’t born with much the chance to earn their way up.  It’s the American Dream.  There is opportunity if you’re willing to do the work.  But in exchange what you get is over-worked, over-stressed, lonely people.  As a single person who lives alone, I realized once that I didn’t leave my house or see another human being for three days straight.  Maybe it was even four.  Whaaaaaat?  Our society is set up so that you can do that.  I mind my business, you mind yours.  If it weren’t for the church I’d probably be a very lonely person.  There are more people hidden in the shadows than we’d like to admit.  It can also lead to a false belief that people don’t need each other.  People in these cultures don’t realize how much of who they are and what they have they owe to forces bigger than themselves, to people they have never met (and many that they have met). It also makes us blind to cultural forces that deny opportunity to certain groups of people.  It’s a real problem, and people suffer for it.

The collectivist societies, on the other hand, understand themselves as deeply connected.  They take care of one another in a way that the individualist societies do not.  I’m sure you’ve heard it said that nursing homes aren’t a thing in many other countries like they are in the US.  That’s because when grandmother falls sick, the family takes her in.  Family means everything to them.  My friend Olivia was telling me the other day that when two people decide to get married in Sierra Leone it’s not just the marriage of two people, it’s the marriage of two families.  And so it’s a real insult to get engaged if the two sets of parents (and the aunts, uncles, siblings, cousins, grandparents, etc.) haven’t met and approved of one another.  It’s enough to halt the engagement.  On the negative side, collectivism does sometimes lead to group think.  And there is a tendency to ignore the rights of the individual for what is right for the whole.  

Most cultures fall somewhere in between.  What I have learned over time is that the US is extreme on the independent side.  Not just a little independent.  Like off the charts independent.  Most of the world does not live and think like we do.  We define ourselves by our accomplishments, feel the need to prove ourselves over and above others, value pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps (even though that’s not actually physically possible).  Even as a nation our value is derived by how we won our own independence, our ability to self-govern.  It’s a source of more than pride.  It’s our identity.  

I know that I am a product of this.  I left home at 18 and, with the exception of one summer, didn’t move back.  I’ve had my own jobs, set up my own homes, maintained my own cars (albeit poorly and with a lot of complaining), paid my own bills, all the things.  It’s a source of pride for me that I have made my own way and forged my own path.  I like to pretend that this was all my doing.  I forget that my grandmother bought me my first car and paid for most of college, that I come from educated parents who read to me as a child and visited my teachers every time I got a B (which was more often than my siblings, much to the chagrin of my father), that my grandparents were an entrepreneur, a pilot, a rancher, and a concert musician.  I could go on.  All of this has made me who I am and contributed to my success.  And so it’s part of our work as a culture to bring the pendulum back toward a balanced center.  And I think it’s starts with the acknowledgment of the people and forces that contributed to where we are.

Katie Meek