Declaration of Independence

thomas-jefferson-2-1421207-639x601Now that the fireworks are over and the grills are stilled, school is out and vacations are in, I want to pause for a few minutes to consider the word at the center of all our July 4th festivities: independence.

Not the politically-charged nuances—that’s for another kind of blog. Rather, I’ve been thinking lately about what it means to be independent as an individual living with a disease that challenges your ability to do for yourself—and whether that really matters as much as it seems.

Independence is certainly central to our nation’s psyche. Our country was born by breaking away from colonial rule under a tyrannical king. The rugged individualist, the cowboy, the inventor, the explorer—these were America’s formative heroes.

Today the self-made entrepreneur, the start-up genius who becomes a multimillionaire is idolized. Star athletes, whose success depend on teammates, are singled out and lauded for exceptional skill; they may credit the team, but their own names become national brands. The mark of adulthood in our culture is making it “on your own.”

But what does that really mean? I’m as driven as the next American to be self-sufficient, to support myself and those I love, to get around on my own in my car, to manage my finances and run my own business.

And yet, none of that would be possible without many, many interconnected relationships with others. There is not one thing that I do all day that does not depend on some form of collaboration—from staying safe on the highway because others around me obey (mostly) the rules of the road, to taking my daily doses of medication because I’ve received good advice from my team of physicians and I can afford the drugs with my husband’s employee health insurance.

Unless you’re a survivalist or a hermit, being independent is really all about holding up your end of the bargain with all the other members of your family, friendship circle, community, nation—and, most broadly, the planet.

It does not mean doing everything yourself, without any help. It doesn’t mean not asking for help when you need it. Indeed, asking for help, which can make you feel childlike or weak or less-than in a culture that so prides itself on the appearance of self-sufficiency, is often an act of courage.

Here is how I think about independence, after more than three decades of living with scleroderma: It mean doing the best you can, within the breadth and limits of your own capabilities, while recognizing—no, honoring—your interdependent connections in the web of life. It means helping others when they need the support that only you can provide. It means standing up for yourself when you need to speak up—and speak out—to set things right, for yourself and others.

Our nation turned 240 years old on Monday. In these tumultuous times, each and every one of us is needed, each has something to offer for the greater good of all. The next time you know you must ask for help, go ahead—there will be more than enough opportunities to extend a hand in return.

Image Credit: Thad Zajdowicz

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

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