Two-hundred and forty-three years ago today, our country declared its independence from Great Britain. It was the moment our country became an adult: “I’m an adult now, Mom and Dad!” we practically said, “I don’t need your help. I’m going to run my life my way!” And so we set off to craft a new country, founded on new values and new principles that would form a new people. The Colonists became North Americans—or, more specifically, they became citizens of the United States.
A document was written—or better yet, a declaration was made—to legislate and legitimize our newfound independence. This document was none other than the Declaration of Independence. In this declaration are the key phrases that would define our people and their new culture forever moving forward. Perhaps the most famous written by our founding father, Thomas Jefferson, are as follows:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
What powerful words—that our Creator gives all of humankind three rights that every human being should bear: the right to Life, the right to Liberty, and the right to pursue his or her own Happiness.
At the outset, all this sounds really great. No one doubts that. But let’s look a little further behind the curtain.
Thomas Jefferson, the guy who wrote the Declaration of Independence, was an Epicurean. He followed a philosophy of life that heavily emphasized “the pursuit of happiness:” to grow in prosperity, to thrive, to cultivate personal wellbeing. But he was also an autarchist. What in the world is an autarchist?
Autarchies are governments based on a political philosophy that promotes individualism, individual liberty, and self-reliance. The literal greek word for autarchy translates as “self-sufficient.” This was what motivated the freedom to function without Great Britain’s oversight; for the country to be “self-sufficient.” But the autarchy philosophy isn’t just for the government. It’s for the people, as well. In other words, it is ultimately up to you as an individual who rules your life, not the government.
Now, here’s the irony. The guy who claims that “our Creator” gives us the right to pursue happiness is founded on the principle that you run your own life. Your pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness is done by yourself, on your own means, without someone else dictating how your life ought to go.
And thus gave birth to the American cultural value of individualism. This makes for great government, and a wonderful country. But it also makes for absolutely terrible Christianity. And really, not that great of a humanity, either.
In my post on individualism, I dissected how at the core of what it means to be a human species is to be interdependent, not independent. The whole idea of being self-sufficient—to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, to work harder, to choose busyness and personal aspirations over friendships, to not need anyone else to help you run your life unless it’s to help you achieve your goals, dreams, and pursuits—desecrates our human design.
Individualism, when taken to its extreme, results in loneliness. And loneliness, when to its extreme, can result in death…
John Caccioppo, leading researcher on loneliness, wrote that
“People with few social ties are more likely to die of heart disease, cerebrovascular and circulatory disease, cancer, and a broader category that included respiratory, gastrointestinal, and all other causes of death…. Social isolation is on par with high blood pressure, obesity, lack of exercise, or smoking as a risk factor illness and early death.”
– John Caccioppo (Loneliness, 93)
Could our independence be killing us?
Perhaps, independence isn’t the way we should be pursuing life, liberty, and happiness, but interdependence. Caccioppo later writes that “Happiness for a member of the human species demands connection” (Loneliness, 218). When we’re satisfied with our social connections, we feel safe. And when we feel safe, we think more creatively. In our communities, we experience and anticipate more positive emotions, providing immediate and persistent psychological uplift. This makes us pleasing to be around, and encourages us to be pleasant and encouraging around others, which influence how others interact with us, which, all together, determines that sense of community you experience, ultimately influencing your happiness and overall way of life (223-4).
Interdependence is the way to life, liberty, and happiness.
Now, hear me out: I don’t think the founding fathers could have ever predicted that our value on individualism would lead to a loneliness epidemic. In fact, there’s nothing inherently wrong with individualism. It’s a marvelous value that puts more emphasis on personal uniqueness and the self than many other eastern collectivist cultures do. The problem, though, is the U.S. is labeled as a radically individualist culture by sociologists. Such a label bears catastrophic consequences.
May we use our country’s independence to declare our need to be interdependent.
May we resist the pressure to live alone.
May we choose community over self.
May we find the true source of life, liberty, and happiness through friendships who love us, who remind us we can’t do this thing on our own.
As Caccioppo once wrote, “The corollary to being ‘obligatorily gregarious’ [or ‘inherently social’] is being interdependent. “Independence,’ the biologist Lynn Margulis reminds us, ‘is a political term, not a scientific term.’”