Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Nicer the Nice, the Higher the Price

I encountered the phrase “humble dependence” in a book I was reading this morning. Though in the context of the text it was meant to refer to a relationship between God and man or woman, I couldn’t help but wonder aloud about our own human dependencies. Are any earthly dependencies, regardless of the context or the situation, truly humble, deferring to superior judgment and guidance? For example, how much of any romantic relationship in which we are a part is not founded on some degree of purely selfish need? I myself know that the fear of being alone has driven me to make decisions based on impulsive short-term need, rather than long-term good sense. Even if we are aware of it, even if we have the therapy bills and scars to prove it, and even our self-awareness is evident to all, is there still not a degree of self-interest involved as we search for others or engage in our own journey?

Beyond romance, dependence has often directed us towards actions that are unhealthy or ill-suited. Certain people give of themselves unconditionally and others give on their own terms only. We quickly learn the difference between the two. What we may not vocalize or intellectualize is how every relationship we cultivate in on our lives is a reflection of our own basic emotional needs, which in some ways could be even seen as an addictive behavior. This is as true for the ambitious politician with sharp elbows as the crusading journalist sent to cover him or her. Both aim to serve the public, but in different ways, though the drive and desire may have notable similarities.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington showcases a romantic, ideal form of the political process. Sweeping, supreme gestures of unconditional, unselfish devotion presented in a healthy form do exist, but we would be foolish to apply this same unquestioned standard to everyone. A successful campaign over, confetti swept from the floor of headquarters, the hard work now begins. At this point, the ideal must be measured against the reality. Gender and a double standard of what constitutes suitable behavior and success are only one manner in which this exists. Many an ethical crisis, to say nothing of ethics investigation has begun with contradictory, paradoxical needs and wants from others. The empty feeling of not having, for whatever purpose, and in whatever form has produced scandal after scandal.

I ask again, in a slightly different form: when do our human dependencies become humble dependencies? Is it a straightforward matter of learning from past mistakes? Is it a sense of spiritual grounding through faith? Is it an an awareness of who we are and what influences us in the greater world? Those three in and of themselves would seem to be deficient in so many people with some degree of power at their disposal. But again, even if we know ourselves well and recognize why we do the things we do, I think there is still a degree of addiction involved on some level. Altruism may be a healthy conduit for some, but false altruism is as disingenuous as false modesty.

Between the governed and those who govern, there need not always be a relationship rooted in one-sided dependency. It is so easy to confuse true selflessness with me-centered attitudes, particularly because these lines so often and so quickly blur. Beyond outward appearance and inward conviction is a vast amount of gray area, making it difficult to discern reality from position statement. It is another great cliche to talk about how power corrupts with time, as this process is often perceived as a kind of moral decay based on immoral behavior. This assumes that any atmosphere in the immediate environment is noxious and toxic. I argue that the seeds present for these sorts of transformation were always there, but the right combination of sun, soil, and water led directly to sprouting.

In this context, I think about a Sly & The Family Stone song called "Somebody's Watching You". The lyrics read, in part,

The nicer the nice, the higher the price/
This is what you pay for what you need

What we see before us then is the paradox of human behavior, both the biological and the social. The price is not only monetary, it is also the toll we pay to rise to the top. Some of us have paid dearly for it. Is this a failing of our society, which produces individuals incapable of working for all, rather than for themselves, or have their always been just as many people with integrity as those with numerous personal demons? And if this is the case, are their struggles and our own issues purely a matter of finding complimentary dependencies, needs, issues, demands, and wants within ourselves and in our outward lives? Dependencies aren’t necessarily always good or always bad, but perhaps the combination of each is the most crucial of crucial factors. That may be the only way in a fallen world to stay humble and yet also, surprisingly, dependent.


alarob said...

I’m curious about what’s distinctive about “humble dependency,” i.e., what makes it humble. Can you say more about that? Who used the word?

I’ve been thinking about dependency as theorized by some world-systems types, who go on about the dependency within colonial/imperial relationships. For example, Indians in North America become dependent on obtaining necessary luxuries through trade, and on income from selling things to outsider traders. They need things they can’t provide for themselves, and that they didn’t need until they knew about them. Next thing you know, they’re in debt and pressured to cede land in exchange for debt forgiveness. It’s the last thing they want to do, but their power to exercise another option has evaporated.

So that’s a kind of dependency. I think it resembles our own dependency on the grocery store and the whole petroleum-fueled good supply network. If Publix, Winn-Dixie, and Piggly Wiggly all closed down, I expect I would starve within half a month. It’s disturbing to think how limited is my ability to feed, clothe, and shelter myself without buying products. My dependency is greater than that of the 19th-century southern Indians.

The word “dependency” has a lot of canvas in it, so it covers a lot of ground.

Comrade Kevin said...

I myself did not have a particular interpretation in mind.

An 18th Century Friend named Samuel Bownas was my source. He wrote a brief work entitled "A Description of the Qualifications Necessary to a Gospel Minister." It was originally written in 1750.

The exact quotation reads, "To avoid all which, it will be safe to keep in a humble dependence, endearing to keep near the Lord, having him always before our eyes, that we may receive daily ability from him, and speak as we feel our minds moved by his divine Spirit."