Of all the animals on this great, green earth, human beings are the ones with the longest period of nurturing the young. Baby horses stand 30 minutes after birth— it takes us a year. Baby coyotes learn to howl a few weeks after birth—it takes us up to 1 to 3 years to talk.. Baby birds are pushed out of the nest after 14 days—our kids hang around our house for some 18 years.
And so we begin life in a state of utter dependence, of complete helplessness. We need the parents that will hold up our wobbly neck, need the nourishment given by the breast, need the constant exposure to human language, need the support and encouragement to start walking. Each stage in our growth and development marks our movement from dependence to independence. We can hold up our own neck, we can sit up by ourselves, we can grab the food on our plate and feed ourselves, we can crawl from here to there, we can express out clear needs with a word—“more!” (or these days, a sign-language gesture)—each milestone a tiny step toward increased independence, celebrated and encouraged by our parents.
And so it goes for the next 18 years or so. Our kids learn to dress themselves, tie their shoe, draw, read, write, ride a bike, learn a piano piece, shoot a basketball, set the table, cook a meal, walk by themselves to the corner store. And then, joy of all joys (for kids and parents alike), they can drive the car themselves to soccer practice or a friend’s house or even do the shopping for the family. And so it goes until that moment comes for some when you drop your kid at the college dorm, linger to hug them while they anxiously shoo you away, return to your empty nest with a mixture of deep sadness (where did all that time go?) and your own sense of Yee-haw! liberated freedom. Time to reclaim your life beyond just parenting.
This is nature’s mandate for us evolved mammals, a long period of dependence moving step by step towards independence. Note that independence is synonymous with freedom (note Independence Day), the sense that we’re in greater control of our destiny, that we’re free to choose, that we’re free to make our own mistakes, that we’re free to think our own thoughts and choose our own spiritual path and follow our own passions.
But because humans are both gifted and cursed with the freedom of choice, it is possible for us to refuse the responsibility of increased independence. We may live with our parents still at 35 years old and for the wrong reasons, may let others choose our values and be vulnerable to the religious leaders or politicians that want us to believe them and do what they say (usually for their own selfish power and profit), depend upon Fox News to guide our voting instead of investigating a diversity of sources and engaging the brain’s capacity for critical thought. Rather than a temporary natural phase of both our individual and collective evolution, we create a toxic dependence that does nobody any good. It robs us of our own moral, intellectual and spiritual promise, feeds pathological leaders and allows them to cause great harm with their heavy shoulders of power and reduces us to pawns in someone else’s game instead of the kings and queens of our own domain.
Increased independence is not only the natural cycle of each human life, but is the thrust of our collective life as well. Back in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, France throws off the yokes of Kings, the U.S. declares independence from the British, Mexico breaks from Spain, even as the colonial period of exploitation and terrorism continues to wreak havoc with cultures worldwide . It wasn’t until 1947 that India declared independence from Britain, 1957 that Ghana did the same, 1967 for Yemen, 1977 for the Solomon Islands!
The same progression happened with American slavery—chattel slavery until 1865, the black codes, terrorism , voter suppression and Jim Crow until 1965, the New Jim Crow of mass incarceration under the guise of Drug Wars and police murders until… well, today. But you can feel that history’s moral arc, despite all the many one-step forwards and two-steps back regressions, is bending towards freedom, independence and justice.
And so the move from dependence to independence is deeply coded in our genes and equally coded in our social organizations. Independence is the prize we keep our eye on.
But it’s not the end of the story. Read on (the next post coming).