Life Force

June 2, 2011 § 3 Comments

Why does Mary adamantly refuse help to carry groceries up the 16 steps leading to her flat?  A thin and stooped 85-year old divorcee, who endured a stroke, a heart attack, stomach and cataracts surgery, Mary  lives on her own.

The answer? Every time someone helps her she feels that her “life force” gets drained out of her.
This attitude is so embedded in her mind that even the idea of using a device like Lifeline is dismissed: “I don’t feel like I have an ongoing problem that I might need something like that.”

Independence matters to her. Like Mary, most of us have been raised with the idea that being independent is an important trait. Take Judith, a 76 year-old former executive living alone in a cottage in an upscale neighborhood. Judith is proud of her “own absolute independence”:

That’s what independence is: making one’s own mind up about things, and doing things for oneself and stay with it, not being persuaded out of it.  [..] I like the fact that if I want to take off all my clothes and walk naked I can do it now. It’s my call. It is my choice. I like that sense of being in control, just as I drive a standard shift car.

The reluctance to ask for help often goes hand in hand with the pursuit of independent living. For instance Judith dreads depending on others for help. She even claims that she may take her life if she cannot rely on herself on a consistent basis.  For Judith not depending on others and being free to make her own decisions are parts of the same equation.

What is independence? What does it mean? Can we ever achieve full independence? Hester, an 80-year old activist for the rights of lesbians, has a different take. I meet her in a bright living room full of books and pictures of marches.  Hester’s identity is shaped by her long-time membership to the LGBT community. The connection with her community narrows the space of her independent self. As a result, a distinctive perspective emerges:

H: Independent in this country may mean living alone, be the self-made man or woman, but that’s not enough, because there is always somebody helping that person and we all need help and I believe that you can be independent and also part of the social world, that you need to be part of the social world and have friends and lovers, if you want to have lovers, to have that network of friends.
E: So that means interdependence?
H: Yes, that’s the word.

§ 3 Responses to Life Force

  • Tom Jeffries says:

    As the result of a broken clavicle I’m becoming aware of the underlying issues these people face. It is difficult to face the vulnerability involved in needing help. However, it is important to do so, to learn the value of interdependence as Hester has. I love helping others, if I really want to be open I need to allow others to help me.

    This is a wonderful blog!

    • Thank you Tom. Changing our attitude is the first step towards inderdependent living. The second is to change policies so that it is easier and less shameful or problematic to ask for help. The third is to make sure that high quality public assistance is genuinely available.

  • Tom Jeffries says:

    Elena, the first one is possible, the other two are not so easy in this country at this time. I think we need to help others and ask for help when we can, without relying on the government. Unfortunately we live in a plutocracy and we seem to be headed farther down that path.

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