by Margaret Lambert, LCSW
The story goes that an anthropologist suggested a game to the children of a Bantu South African tribe. He placed a basket, full of fruit, near a tree and told the children that whoever got there first would win the fruits. He then counted down; 3-2-1 RUN! At that moment they all took each other’s hands and ran together. Then they sat together to enjoy the fruit. He asked them why each did not try to beat the other so they could be the first one to get the basket; winning the prize for himself. They said: ”UBUNTU, how can one of us be happy if all the other ones are sad?”
‘UBUNTU’ in this culture means: “I am because we are.” In 1994, when South Africa became a democracy, Archbishop Desmond Tutu brought this word and this idea into the English language. “I am what I am because of who we all are.” He wrote: “It is the essence of being human – you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity. We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.”
In the Bantu language this term roughly translates to mean “the bond of sharing that connects all humanity.”
Some of our first nation people, like the Cherokee, have a saying, “if it’s not good for everyone, it’s no good at all.” This philosophy, called by different names by different peoples, was shared by hundreds if not thousands of ancient cultures all over the world. It is, as Archbishop Tutu said, “the essence of being human” and it is the underlying concept of the words interconnectedness or interdependence.
In my classes we have a discussion about the difference between being dependent, independent, co-dependent and interdependent; different ways we can relate to each other. Some students will have a good understanding of the concept of dependency because they had an overly needy partner that resulted in feeling worn down from trying to meet their never ending needs. The needy person was not able to do anything or go anywhere without the other and this creates a parent-child relationship that often ends when one person tires of their role. If the child part of that equation decides they feel smothered by the ever present parent they may decide to grow up and this changes the equation because the parent side will then lose their parenting job. On the other hand, when the person who took the parent role finally rebels and leaves the relationship the other must grow up quickly and most likely will carry a lot of anger for being thrust into a grow-up role.
Others in my class relate well to the concept of independence because they had a partner that desired very little connection and they were left feeling disconnected and lonely, especially if they did not have a family or friendship system in place to help them fill in the gaps.
Co-dependency, on the other hand, is a word we hear a lot but often don’t grasp the meaning. One explanation I believe well describes this concept states that co-dependency is when one person puts aside their own well-being to maintain a relationship with another person. Another fine definition is that co-dependency is when one person takes on the consequences of another person’s behavior. Either way, neither one allows much room for taking care of yourself without feeling selfish.
Interdependency is much like the example given at the beginning of this article; an interconnectedness where each individual contributes to the relationship in a way that sustains the relationship and the other person without completely compromising individuality.
Our American culture has two values that don’t sit well side by side on the same plate. We value strong individualism and the freedom that it brings us and we value long-term committed relationships. We desire the freedom that comes with being single yet yearn for the connection and advantages that come from being coupled. To maintain a long-term committed relationship requires that we resolve the tension that exists between these two values. Those who manage to weave these two together understand that if one person is having an issue, the relationship will have an issue. When a couple recognizes this they can learn to set self-interest aside and talk about what they are each feeling and needing so they can make the adjustments needed to make both people feel better. Remember the concept of UBUNTU: How can one of us be happy when the other is sad? Maybe this will remind you that when your partner feels good about the relationship, so will you –because you are being interdependent.