Suggested Reading

  • " The Fifth Discipline" by Peter Senge
  • " The Tao of Pooh" by Benjamin Hoff
  • " The Three Pillars of Zen" by Roshi Phillip Kapleau

Our False Sense of Isolation

Most of us live with the sense that we are isolated from everyone and everything else. We sense that we are here, they are there. And especially in the United States, we generally believe that we should live like this, since we value the individual so highly.

However, the sense that we are isolated is based on the false notion that it is possible to act independently of each other.

The Reality of Interdependence

Reality is different from theory, though; everything that we do has some effect on other people. Think of your own experience: You've probably had a neighbor who did something you don't like. Maybe they painted their house a color that you found distracting. They did nothing directly to you, but you were affected anyway.

The fact is that everything that we do affects somebody in some way; that is, we are all interdependent on each other. Whether this is on an interpersonal level or a societal level, it is inescapable. Sometimes the effect is small, sometimes it's large. It can be beneficial, harmful, or neutral.

An odd consequence of our interdependence is that if we act without consideration of the effects on others, we often hurt ourselves. Unfortunately, the effect may not show itself for some time, at which point we don't recognize that it is the consequence of some past action. Extreme examples are easy to think of - abused children murdering their parents, impoverished groups rioting and overthrowing their government, just to name two. However, the consequences aren't always so extreme and are therefore hard to discern. A more subtle example would be that of a city council member who pushed for more housing in her city. Sometime later, her child wanted to go to a certain high school but could not because the school was too crowded, and so had to go to a school somewhat farther from her home. The council member probably did not see that her previous action of encouraging building caused the problem that she and her daughter faced. And so it goes with all of our lives; we neglect to examine our actions to see if there are possible consequences that we don't want to suffer.

From these examples, you may wonder if there is a positive side to our interdependence. Yes there is, and it is in fact the same as the negative side – we are not isolated, we are not alone. Those people who have the impression that they are alone are suffering terribly from this isolation that we so strongly believe in. If we change our point of view and consider how interdependent we are, we can relieve this feeling of loneliness. A practical example: If you've ever had the experience of feeling angry or upset after an encounter with a rude salesperson, clerk, etc. you know how we can change each other's lives on a moment to moment basis. However, we are not limited to bringing unhappiness to each other. In the same way that a rude clerk can make us angry, we can help others feel better simply by being polite and patient. If you feel lonely, you can actually see how connected you are with others by being pleasant in public and watching others smile because of your pleasantness. Both you and they benefit from this interaction.

All in all, we find that it is impossible to act independently of others. It is also impossible to achieve our best interests without considering the long term effects on ourselves. We can use this knowledge to help everyone, including ourselves, to be happier and more free from needless suffering.