As the US is celebrating its Independence Day, I have been mulling over the theme of independence. I’ve never really cared for Fourth of July cook-outs with nitrite-laced hot dogs and salty potato chips. I do enjoy fireworks, especially when I still lived in the Washington DC area. The Fourth of July fireworks on the National Mall are spectacular.
However, for this discussion, I am more interested in personal independence.
The dictionary defines independence as freedom from others’ influence, control or determination. Another word that seems closely interlinked with independence is self-reliance – the ability to rely on one’s own judgment and abilities.
From the time I was a child, the struggle to be my own person and make my own decisions has been pervasive in my life. First, there was the Catholic priest who punished me for exercising my free will to not attend student mass. I couldn’t wait to turn 12 years old to drop religion class – which I did happily. It took me many years before I was interested in looking at anything religious again. But then I got to choose what I studied and how deeply I studied.
At the Gymnasium (university-track middle and high school), I was lucky to have Herr Schmitz as my teacher. He told me much later, when I was an adult, that his mission was to teach us how to be critical, how to question authority, and how to think deeply. We read both Hitler and Karl Marx in his class. I am forever grateful for his Socratic questions and impenetrable half-smiles which often exasperated us. I learned to forge my already independent mind into a formidable and highly useful tool (and, sometimes, weapon).
As a teenager, I struggled against my parents’ ideas of what I should do to earn a living. I neither followed my mother’s advice to become a secretary nor my father’s demands to become a multilingual tour guide. Somehow, I managed to move out when I was 17 and pursue my own path. I became the first person in my extended family to ever study at the university level and the only one (so far) to earn a doctorate. It helped that I was intellectually curious and enjoyed studying; but I was also determined to achieve financial independence as a woman. Education was the essential tool to achieve that goal.
Moving from Germany to the US as a young woman and being married at the time to a man from a different culture and race made me keenly aware of the influences of culture, race, and class. I was usually the one person in class who asked about cross-cultural applications of concepts. On top of that, I was a fierce feminist. One of my psychology professors actually wrote to a famous feminist therapy professional because he did not know the answers to my questions! I was often surprised when other students complained about a teacher after class but then never took the next step to discuss their issues directly with the professor. What good is a critical, independent mind if you don’t follow up with actions that will change what you are unhappy with?
I had stood up to my priest, my parents, my teachers, and a culture that did not welcome me as part of an interracial couple. I was independent, smart, angry, and fearless – and undoubtedly intimidating to many people. But I also met a few people who took me under their wings and supported me. Without them, I might have been forced to make much greater compromises.
While I have mellowed considerably since my early 20s, I still have a fiercely independent streak. I can see through mass media indoctrination, advertising, fashion prescriptions, peer manipulations, and cultural and gender expectations…. and I haven’t had a boss in a long time.
However, independent thinking and living has its consequences and compromises as well. Friends/acquaintances who are intimidated by my strong opinions or other manifestations of free thinking often fade away. I feel lonely for my “tribe,” knowing full well that being part of a localized tribe would significantly diminish my personal independence. My tribal members are scattered across the globe but thinking about them makes me feel grateful for their existence and the work they are doing in this complicated world of ours.
I am happy to have found my soulmate who is not threatened by my high level of independence. I am (mostly) willing to make the compromises that are necessary to be in an inter-dependent marriage. It does take some juggling and jostling at times.
I realize that there are families and societies where an individual’s need for and assertion of high levels of independence can lead to ostracism, or worse. I am lucky to live in an environment where I can pretty much get away with being who I want and need to be, although it doesn’t make me the most popular girl in town. I also have the privilege of being white in a country that still struggles with institutionalized racism.
What about you? How do you (or don’t you) get your needs for independence met? What sacrifices do you make to keep the peace in your family or community? What do you wish you could do or be if you were truly independent?
Ailsa’s Travel Theme this week is “Independence.”