Word Issues #2: Independence

How do you decide whether a person you talk to is “independent”? Does the fact they pay for their own coffee make them independent? Or is it the fact that they’re not afraid to hold an opinion different from everyone else’s? Or does “independent” mean they’ll keep doing everything on their own because they don’t believe someone else could handle things just as well?

The initial question isn’t a rhetorical one: I’m seriously at a loss whenever someone uses the word “independent” with no additional context. It’s the next one in my collection of empty words.

In Gombrowicz. Człowiek wobec ludzi (“Gombrowicz. A Person in Relation to People”), a book about the social philosophy of Witold Gombrowicz, Leszek Nowak equates independence with resisting other people’s influence and remaining in your current form. Viewed in such terms, independence means you are a rigid structure that no one can change, and your life stagnates. Viewed in such terms, independence sucks. Who would want to never change, never grow?

Fortunately, humans don’t work that way (or those I know don’t): they grow, they change, they talk to others and change their opinions, they live with others and change their habits, they get emotionally influenced by others and change their whole attitude to life.

Progress is all about a kind of dependence: the good kind which makes you think, and re-think things; slip into some sort of disguise to later discover “this is not your real self”; beat your bad habits and become who you want to be [1].

Man is created by other people […] he may think that it is different, that he is governed by his own spirit which ‘fires where it will’, but these are only humanistic illusions […]. There is really only one thing that man can do: abandon the humanistic ideology and find the courage to understand his own poverty. Understand that it is beyond his power to shape himself, because he will be shaped by others anyway, whether he wants it or not […]. Understanding that it is the Inter-human that shapes his personality, he can manipulate his contacts with people. Feeling that he lacks something, man can get entangled in such a net of relations that will necessitate the desired fulfilment of this shortage. He can direct himself among people, becoming – thanks to them – the person he desires to be […]. Man, being most sharply conditioned […], can therefore develop a sharpest awareness of his conditions […]. To utilize these conditions so as to achieve the desired self-image [2]

A friend once told me I was the most independent person she’d ever met. I don’t really know what she meant, because she didn’t attach a glossary entry, but I wasn’t too happy when I heard it: my immediate interpretation was something along the lines of Nowak’s notion of independence. So I was afraid I was becoming this rigid structure of beliefs, habits, and attitudes that no one could change. I felt it might be the case because I knew I was afraid of change, and wouldn’t let people influence me.

Her remark influenced me more than I could suspect back then: I’ve grown out of this fear since.

I remember once buying a flower baseball cap spontaneously because my friends encouraged me to do it, and then thinking: “Wait, I actually did that? But I never buy things on the spur of the moment… That’s interesting.” Life in general gets more interesting when you open to other people’s influence. It’s actually fascinating for me, the possibility of change.

Which isn’t to say I myself want to be a completely different person tomorrow morning; I just like watching how people strangle their old habits and develop new ones, stop missing their well-remembered places and go in search of new ones to live and love in, express strong beliefs and then are happy contradicting them with all their hearts.

By the way, I no longer like that flower-pattern cap. I wear a one-colour one now. One-colour caps are cool. 😉 But this wasn’t meant as a headwear post; it was supposed to be about independence, but it seems I still don’t know what I’m talking about…

So tell me, how do you define an independent person? What does the word “independence” mean for you? I don’t want to keep it in my Empty Words basket — I’d much rather move it to the People Disagree over the Definition one.

[1] Or alliterate like you actually believed this practice will one day make you a writer as good as the ones you admire.

[2] Nowak Leszek. Gombrowicz. Człowiek wobec ludzi. Warszawa 2000. Page 55 (my own translation).


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I'm an unprofessional writer, reader and translator. I'm also a walking, breathing and listening addict. And I love being all that.

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