Friday, November 25, 2011

State of In(ter)dependence

It's hard to link roadside signs to Thanksgiving, but some things have been bumping around in my head, so I'm going to try.

I've always thought the roadside signs coming into my home state have a lovely irony.  Driving north on Route 83, the first sign you see is "Pennsylvania Welcomes You: State of Independence".

The next three signs, in rapid succession (all within 100 yards of the Independence sign) warn motorists that they should "Buckle Up; It's the Law!", that speed limits are enforced by aircraft, and that littering is punishable by a fine.

 And then, shortly after those three signs, there's an emergency call box.

So, in other words, the bold rhetoric says that we're independent, but our laws and customs say we're not.  The signs that follow the "independence" sign remind motorists that
  • we expect and even require that people be responsible for guarding their own safety (in this case, by buckling up);
  • we expect and require that people conform to what other people or cars do (in this case, by driving at approximately the same speed as other drivers); and
  • we expect and require that people have a responsibility to the environment (by not littering).

And we also expect that our society has a reciprocal responsibility toward its citizens (to respond in case of an emergency).
We like to think of our own independence as driving down this lonesome highway, with not a care in the world.  Our independence has a directionality to it:  we chart our own course through the world; we take the road less traveled by (and that makes all the difference); I did it my way. 

But the word “independence” itself has denial in it (that first "in" means "not").  Being “in-dependent of” means “not to depend on”.  And when we put these ideas side-by-side, the tension is aparent.  We say we are “independent” (of our parents, our community, our peers); we do not like to say that our parents, our community, our peers do not (or can not) depend on us.   Freedom and independence are precious to the extent that they are asymetrical, flowing in one direction in our lives, allowing us to be unique, to be unconstrained, to choose our own path.  When independence flows the other way--when our own actions and efforts make no difference to those around us--the concept holds much less appeal.

This past week, my college newspaper asked students what they were thankful for.  Every single one of the students said, "Friends and Family".  It sounds so smarmy to say it, but I agree -- totally.  What I love most about driving up route 83 into Pennsylvania isn't leaving Maryland to enter a state of independence, its that I'm coming home to be with the people I know and love.

Welcome to Pennsylvania:
State of Interdependence.

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