At our Encounters, we like to explore the fact that people are more effective if their view of the world corresponds to reality. And the reality is that the world is not only very interactive, it is also incredibly interdependent.
Thus we -- the people who inhabit this world -- are interdependent as well.
This is an essential dimension of reality that is not always easy for people in the modern world to notice. We are inclined to see the human race as a collection of independent agents rather than as a complex system of highly interdependent members. We are disposed to see the totality of human development as the movement of individuals from dependence to independence.
Sadly, it’s a blind spot that can cause us immeasurable frustration and failure in life.
As Stephen Covey pointed out in his bestselling book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, the pinnacle of human development is not independence but interdependence. When our view of self and others reflects this fundamental realty, we can be more effective and exercise intentional, lasting influence on others.
But paradoxically, in our modern world the web of interdependence works so well we’re often blind to it.
Take the example of going into a grocery store to buy a few items. We walk in without even having to push open the door. We stroll the aisles to locate and purchase exactly what we want, choosing by whatever criteria satisfies us: brand, size, cut, price, the appeal of the packaging, and more. Then we walk to the checkout station, present our choices, pay or charge the amount required, grab our package and walk out the door.
It doesn’t get much more independent than that, does it?
In fact, one of the gratifications that we get from shopping, apart from the items we buy, is the sense of independence and control the experience gives us. In the modern store, the process is not messy or complex like human relationships can be. We decide exactly what we want. We get it. We pay for it. We walk out owning it.
The whole process is quick, simple, straightforward. No patience is required. There’s no ambiguity. It’s a matter of instant gratification. We are in complete control.
Or are we?
Let’s revisit our trip to the grocery store. For us to shop in the store people had to sell and buy property, plan the store, invest in it, design it, get permits, grade the site, build it, install its heating, cooling, lighting, ventilation and sanitary systems, Others had to construct the parking lot. Still others have had to maintain everything.
How many would you guess it has taken to give us our experience of seeming to operate with complete independence and self-sufficiency?
Inside we bought a bag of grapes. It came from Chile, although we might have chosen grapes from any number of other countries. How many workers were involved in growing them, harvesting them, packing, shipping them to the U.S., unpacking, cleaning, bagging and shipping them to the local store, where they were priced and put on display for us to buy? The number is in the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions.
Then we bought bananas which could have come from any of several Central or South American countries. In any event, they were there for our picking only because of a $5 billion a year industry that produces, harvests and sells more than 100 million tons of bananas each year, thanks to the contributions of millions of people.
Next we bought coffee. We had many choices with respect to brands and brews. Whatever it was we chose, it wouldn’t have been there on the shelf for us apart from an industry that employs 100 million people in its supply chain.
After that we bought some canned vegetables. They were there for us because countless people planted seeds, cultivated soil, harvested the vegetables, shipped them to factories where they were processed and packaged, then shipped them to stores where they were priced and displayed. Who can guess how many farmers, drivers, factory and grocery workers made our choice possible?
This list could go on and on, depending on the number of items we buy. But checking off even the shortest list is possible only because millions of people participate in a vast network of finance construction, maintenance, agribusiness, transportation and marketing.
That wasn’t as true 200 years ago. My great-grandparents were much more independent than we are today. They produced and processed nearly all of the food they and their families ate. They had their babies without benefit of a doctor. They never had to deal with traffic jams or heard of antibiotics.
Of course, the price of independence came high.
Diets were very limited in scope – and sometimes in quality, quantity or both. When you got hurt or sick, you often died. Childbirth was a life-threatening experience. In fact, average life expectancy at birth was about 40 years, compared with about 79 today.
And they were never completely independent. Their birth required the cooperative action of their parents. Their children required their own interaction. When challenges arose, they tried to help each other. They formed extended families, neighborhoods, cooperatives, communities, nations and international alliances.
Across the vast scope of human history, interdependence has been basis for progress ... and the hope of more progress.
That said, in terms of scope, we are more interdependent than ever before – and while the benefits are incalculable, they come with some undeniable complications.
One of those complications is trying to get along with one another on an ever broadening scale.
Alas, news stories about divorce rates, spousal and family abuse, and neighborhood gang slayings make it clear that we are often not very good at getting along with one another at the smallest, most intimate scales, much less on a global scale.
If the world is to become a safer, more secure place for everyone who inhabits it, we have to learn how to do much better jobs – each and every one of us – of fostering and nurturing mutually beneficial relationships at every scale, from our own homes to the planet itself.
That work begins with our recognition that independence is not the apex of human development. It is not even an accurate picture of reality. As much as we are individuals, we are individuals that emerge from and survive in a web of profound interdependence.
No doubt that is why Jesus, quoting the Hebrew scriptures, said we should love our neighbors as we love ourselves. And no doubt that is why later, at the Last Supper, he raised the bar and urged his disciples to “love one another as I have loved you.” (John 13:34)
The three pillars of S3 Jesus-like Leadership are:
- Servant – it’s not about me;
- Steward – it’s not mine;
- Shepherd – people are precious.
The more each and every one of us can live with these pillars of Jesus’ leadership as the foundation of our own lives, the more the world can benefit from the interdependence which is at the very heart of human existence.
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