Saturday, July 2, 2016

Celebrating Interdependence

"A Fragile Web of Life"
- along a wilderness trail -

This weekend, Americans across the country are celebrating Independence Day, that time several centuries ago when we declared we were an Independent nation, free from the restraints of British rule.  I don’t mean to sound unpatriotic, but the truth is that I’m always a bit wary of celebrating our independence. In fact I think we live in an era where we have emphasized the spirit of “independence” far too much in this nation and in the world. When human beings declare that they are independent they are often prone to think of themselves as separated from different others and usually superior to them.

Independent Americans believe they live in the greatest country in the world, far superior to everyone else, and so they must build walls along borders to keep out inferior foreign usurpers. Moreover, independently-minded American citizens have defined themselves by the camps to which they belong: Black and white, conservative and liberal, the elite and the poorly-educated, Christian and Muslim, atheists and believers - each independent camp sure that they are superior to the other.  Independent Americans also see themselves as separated from and better than a world of nature, a world that primarily exists as a resource to serve to human needs.

In many ways the very notion of “independence” is a myth and a delusion, and a dangerous myth at that.

On this Independence Day weekend, I have been reflecting on the life-lesson taught to me by the desert where I live. The desert is such a fragile ecosystem, everything in the system is profoundly interdependent. Everything belongs together - no one single element stands out in importance, every single element is as important as the other.

When you walk out into a desert, at first glance it seems like there is nothing here but endless horizons of dry sand and piles of rocks; and yet this is a place that is literally teeming with complex vitality, most of which is hidden from and practically invisible to the first glance of the naked eye.

The desert is replete with living creatures of every sort and type - roadrunners and rabbits, hummingbirds and bats, spiders, ants and bees, snakes and lizards; and yes, there are people here also.  The desert floor is covered with seeds and tiny flowers, bushes, trees and cacti that will blossom overnight with just a slight sprinkling of rain. The morning sun, the blazing skies of night, the wind howling through the canyons - everything swings and sways together in a vast and breathtakingly beautiful cosmic dance. 

On this Independence Day weekend, the life-lesson the desert teaches me is that all life is interdependent -  everything that has “being” is a dynamic, fragile, web of relationship.

I remember an article in the New York Times that I came across a few months ago, it offers a profound wisdom for this Independence Day weekend:

If the human species is to endure
we need to give up the practice our own independent truth
and understand that truth is found not just in one perspective
but in their multiplication, not in one point of view but in their aggregate
not in opposition but in the whole.
We need to see not just with American eyes or Western eyes
but with Islamic eyes and Inuit eyes,
not just with human eyes but with golden cheek warbler eyes,
coho salmon eyes and polar bear eyes,
and not just with eyes at all but with the wild barely articulate being of
clouds and seas and trees and stars.

This weekend many people in this country will celebrate how special and how great we are, a visible presence among the nations of the world. I think it’s ok to celebrate our greatness and our independence, but I also think we might all do well to do the opposite. Maybe this is a good weekend for celebrating interdependence and for acknowledging our invisibility in the larger scope of things.

The author and poet, Akko Bush, has suggested that the spiritual journey is a process of learning how to become invisible:

Becoming invisible doesn’t mean that we deny creative individuality,
nor does it mean that we must relinquish any of the qualities
that make us unique, original, singular.
Rather becoming invisible is an insight that we are of a larger world,
giving us fuller appreciation for our place in the greater scheme of things.


  1. I fully embrace your message, but would like to underscore that celebrating one's country's national day (and yesterday was Canada Day) should not be understood as a claim to its being the best country in the world. I once belonged to a church where thinking of it as a statement in opposition to exceptionalism, the minister would not allow the singing on a patriotic song on the U.S. national day. In objecting to this, I pointed out that when I celebrate mother's day by giving my mother a gift, it is an expression of love and not a claim that she is the best mother in the world.