Alexander Supertramp, Shel Silverstein, and a culture of Independence
I've had a knack for the outdoors for as long as I can remember. I grew up going to a summer camp with all the traditional campy things: canoeing, kayaking, swimming, nature hikes and campfires. I remember going on canoe trips and gazing up at the starts, marvelling at the vastness of the universe (A sight which still inspires awe in me today). It felt amazing being out in nature. It's no wonder that as I grew in to my teenage years I was captivated for some time by Christopher McCandless (AKA Alexander Supertramp). For those who don't know, Chris was a man who had an idea to leave his life behind and go live entirely off the land, and his life was portrayed in both the novel and movie "In to the wild".
Like many teenagers, I was struggling to find my identity, feeling lonely and isolated, at times, and so what was there not to love about Chris' idea? Being out in nature all the time? Um, yup. Feeling a sense of satisfaction from living off the land, providing for yourself and not having to rely on others? Uh huh. Running away from any problems in your life and never facing them again? Heck ya! I fantasized about how cool this way of life could be.
The trope that Chris represents of the uber-independent individual who needs no one but him or herself can be found in countless places, and particularly arises in narratives in western culture. It was an alluring idea for me, and obviously an alluring idea for many based on the success of the movie and novel. Chris embodies this ideal in the scene where he is leaving his family:
"I will miss you too, but you are wrong if you think that the joy of life comes principally from the joy of human relationships. God's place is all around us, it is in everything and in anything we can experience. People just need to change the way they look at things."
Chris held strongly on to this idea that human relationships are not the source of happiness and connection. Independence, self-sustaining, nature, and new experiences were what did it for him (apparently). Needless to say, this idea is not something that I held on to (Disconnection Counselling just didn't have the same ring to it), but I can certainly see the allure of this way of thinking.
In Western Culture especially, we place a high value on independence, individual accomplishment, and self-love, while placing a lesser value (and sometimes even deride) dependency on others. Independence is held to high esteem, while dependence is frowned upon, sometimes associated with words like clingy and needy, which carry a negative connotation. This is not the same for all cultures. Many cultures are more collectivist in nature, placing a much higher value on community and relationships, and not stigmatizing the need to depend on others for emotional and physical needs. Not so in Western culture. Even turn to the DSM (what clinicians use to diagnosis mental illness) and you’ll see “dependent personality disorder” but no “independent personality disorder”. Although there are certainly problems that can and do arise from being overly dependent on others, there are also costs to being overly dependent on our selves.
Let's come back to Alexander Supertramp. So how does our hero's story end? Well, he travels the Country, does a bunch of cool stuff, meets interesting people, but ultimately (Spoiler alert*) he ends up dying of starvation, unable to live off the land as he intended. In the movie, he etches out some of his last words “Happiness is only found when shared” shortly before his death. Happiness is only found when shared. This man who sought out to become one of the most independent individuals alive, in the end, could not shake the truth that human connection is a necessity for survival.
Now let’s consider another story. Wisdom can be found in many places, and I have been amazed at the pithy insights I re-encounter as I read old children’s books together with my niece. One in particular: "The missing piece meets the big O” describes this "piece” (A triangular cut out of a circle) that feels lonely, isolated, and is looking for someone else to make him/her feel complete. This piece goes searching around, finding circles with chunks missing and keeps trying to fit in, to no avail. The piece spends some time on its own, but this also, does not bring happiness. In the end, the piece finds “the big O”. This "Big O" is a complete circle with no pieces missing, and the big O encourages the missing piece to roll on its own. With the big O’s support, nurturance and encouragement, the missing piece gains the strength and courage to lift itself up and gradually flip over and over. Over time, the missing piece’s rough edges begin to smooth, and the two begin to roll together, side by side, supporting each other. One could look at this as yet another story emphasizing the self-love, prizing independence above all else narrative, however I think it is deeper, and more real than this. I believe the Big O represents a healthy, encouraging, loving friend, without which the missing piece could not have realized its independence. Independence first requires a dependence on another.
To me, this story is the perfect metaphor for healthy, human connection and relationships. Whether you see yourself in the piece as it is striving to find an individual to latch on to and fuse with, losing yourself in another's identity, or you see yourself as the one wanting to roll out on your own with no one, it may be time to consider, instead, rolling alongside a supportive other. A relationship (friendship, romantic, family) is most healthy when we feel safe, comfortable, allowed to try and fail, allowed to be ourself, allowed to depend on each other, AND allowed to do our own thing. This is what psychologists call the concept of a secure base. It is the kind of healthy relationship that children need from their primary caregiver. It is also analogous to a healthy romantic relationship. And I would assert that this applies to friendships as well. Fostering these relationships around us allows us to have more love for our self. Interdependence fosters independence. They are the yin to each others yang.
A friend knows our difficulties and shadows and remains in sight, a companion to our vulnerabilities more than our triumphs, (Even) when we are under the strange illusion we do not need them