I found myself alone on the Fourth of July with nothing scheduled with family or friends, so I decided to head over to the park to get into the Independence Day spirit, but to my surprise, very few people were there.
Nobody on the softball diamonds. No one practicing their soccer moves. The skate park was vacant. Only 433 people all day at the pool. My surprise, of course, was due to the memories I had of the park being jammed all day, especially in the evening for the fireworks. I tend to be an introvert, so I deal with being alone pretty well, but on the Fourth of July I wanted to be with a thousand or so of my closest friends and fellow Forest Parkians. On Independence Day, in other words, I didn’t want to be independent.
And that got me thinking about the limits of independence. The American history we were taught in high school glorifies the War of Independence and elevates George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Ben Franklin and, oh yes, Betsy Ross to the status of saints and heroes. But at what cost: 25,000 dead or wounded on the American side and the same for the British. And then, 85 years later when the Confederate States wanted to become INDEPENDENT, 625,000 people died to preserve the union. You see the irony?
According to developmental psychology, adolescence is the time of life for us to become independent of our parents, to stand on our own two feet, form our own unique identities and begin controlling our own lives. To not be tied, in other words, to our mothers’ apron strings. What is striking to me is that Australia and Canada managed to nonviolently untie their apron strings with Great Britain, while the United States cut those strings and a whole lot of people died in the process. If our country had remained in the British Empire, slavery would have ended in this country 29 years before the Emancipation Proclamation.
Another surprise for me was that on Monday, the Seventh of July, I went to the pool and this time the facility was packed, 1222 people altogether during the day. Three days after Independence Day I got what I had been looking for. Liz Broecher, who was working the front window that day, greeted me by name with a smile. Emerging from the locker room, I watched forty kids in the “sand box” digging their way to China or molding fantasy castles.
I said hello to several people I knew on my way to the lap lanes and the children lining up at the diving board parted politely to let me through. I chatted about the weather with the regulars who were sun tanning where I always park my walker.
After swimming my usual quarter mile, I sat in the sun and watched the amazing Norman Rockwell E Pluribus Unum picture unfolding there before me. A Muslim woman wearing an hijab sitting in the shade watching her little children splash in the shallow end. Old guys like me–who had given up trying to look like twenty somethings by holding their tummies in– enjoying the refreshing water.
Very few of the hundreds there at the pool had bodies that would get their picture in the SI swimsuit issue or on the cover of People Magazine’s hottest bachelor issue. For most of us the only six pack we had was in the fridge back home. Most of us there had a little too much here or a not enough there, but the grace—and I use that word intentionally—was that at the pool hardly anybody cared what you looked like in a swimming suit—well, except for the teenagers.
Pregnant women great with child in bikinis. A disabled guy with a walker. Folks with ink all over their bodies. A gay couple. Blacks, whites, tans, redheads, blonds, black hair, brown and no hair. People who spoke the king’s English and those just learning.
On the diving board, first timers would cautiously inch their way to the edge of the board, screw up their courage and then take the leap, bobbing up from the water with a triumphant “did you see me” grin. Mixed in with the little kids were the teenagers who could do one and a halfs and those in betweeners who could almost complete a summersault but while learning would land splat on their backs to the winces and audible groans of the lifeguard keeping watch.
As I drove home, I felt like I had found what I was looking for three days earlier. In a word it was community. Independence, I decided, is really an adolescent thing. You need it to continue maturing as a human being, but if you get stuck there, you never grow up. Give me liberty or give me death? Hmmm. Death in one form or another, it seems to me, is what you get when you are focused solely on freedom, on “my rights as an individual.”
The developmental psychologists teach us that after the adolescent task of becoming independent, the next stage is learning to form intimate relationships with other individuals who themselves have become independent. The term for that is interdependence. It involves moving on from “I am who I am and I will fight anyone who tries to take away my rights” to “let’s see how we can work this out for the common good.” It involves waiting patiently in line for your turn on the diving board if you are a kid and paying taxes to make the diving board, the pool and the park possible if you are an adult.
Interdependence means that part of my identity as an “individual” is paradoxically defined by my relationships with other people. The alley in back of my condo building opens up onto Madison St., which, as you all know, is a busy thoroughfare. It amazes and impresses me how often cars heading west on Madison St. will stop and let me join the flow of traffic when they see me waiting in the alley with my turn signal on. They wouldn’t have to do that. They have the right to keep on driving, but they do it because they get the interdependent thing.
My experience on Interdependence Day made me grateful to live in a community of mostly unpretentious residents who seem to understand their small but important place in the grand scheme of things. It’s a lesson which I wish people who have any kind of power would learn.
Or, as the rock band Chicago used to sing:
Funny days in the park
Every day’s the Fourth of July
People reaching, people touching
A real celebration
Waiting for us all
If we want it, really want it
Can you dig it? YES I CAN!