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Social Interdependence

There was a news story today about an APA study that determined stress among Americans was higher today than in the past 50 years. This is hardly news to anyone who has been paying attention to the impact of the Coronavirus, also known as Covid-19. Since Abraham Maslow released his now famous article on human motivation in 1943, western culture has been focused on how to become self-actualized. The US Army had slogans that focused on "be all you can be" which morphed into the short lived slogan, "an army of one." As a culture, our focus for several hundred years has been on being independent, rising to the top, and when we find "the one" we build a life with them to the exclusion of others not in our nuclear family, small circle of friends, etc. We are, though, going against our own neurology, which has developed in order to increase our safety in a world that was, and still is, hostile to humans when they are alone.

It is against this backdrop that the First Nations (Canada) and Native American concept of culture can provide a framework for interdependence. In 1938, Abraham Maslow spent several weeks with the people of the Blackfoot Nation in Alberta, Canada. According to his biographer, Edward Hoffman, Maslow was strongly impacted by the Blackfoot peoples, and their interactions with each other and him helped to form a humanistic framework for psychology which was biologically rooted but transcended the narrow, one person view of what it meant to be human. For more information, see Stephen Taylor's blog at

My own interactions with people from First Nations groups in Canada, Native Americans in the US, Maori communities in New Zealand and several aboriginal groups in Australia have reinforced the idea that the simplistic approach to self-actualization (which was never Maslow's intention) is inconsistent with our neurology and inconsistent with being human. Integrating western science with indigenous approaches such as the comparison between Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs and the indigenous approaches of First Nations and North American peoples can lead to a new way to think about interdependence.

Stephen Porges Social Engagement System theory ( lays out the rationale for a neurology designed to foster social engagement between small groups of people. The concept of flock being a primary response to stress, not fight or flight, is based on this model. The social distancing (I prefer social spacing) we are encouraged to do goes directly against the grain of our neurology and our needs. As we grapple with all of this, a sense of despondence can easily take hold, and here is how to get through it:

  1. In indigenous circles, the measure of time for actualization is not one person's life, but rather the life of the community, the culture. I don't have to work for self-actualization, I do have to work for the actualization of the people with whom I am affiliated. The choices and sacrifices I make now are not just for me, they are for us. Interdependent actualization is what I am striving for, and that puts the stresses of 2020 in a broader context.

  2. It's not about my rights, it is about our needs. A famous poet once said: You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find, we get what we need (apologies to Mick Jagger). Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said that "The right to swing my fist ends where the other man's nose begins." When we are dealing with a highly contagious virus, I need to worry beyond the reach of my arm, it is the reach of my breath and the transmission of my touch that I want to focus on for our health and welfare, not just mine.

  3. Years ago, almost every house had a wide front porch. Neighbors would come by, and they would set a spell with you. We need to reclaim, if not the front porch, the back yard, the patio, the yard in front of the apartment, and put out chairs and tables 6 feet apart so we can just set a spell. We'll clean them afterwards, of course.

  4. Skype, Zoom, FaceTime, whatever, these have become verbs, not just nouns. Laurie Anderson says that technology is just another campfire around which we tell our stories. Take the opportunity to share and listen, to just be with people and bask in their virtual presence. Treat these portals as you would the proverbial water cooler, coffee break or campfire. Just be with people for a few minutes. For people who are hearing impaired, all three of the named video portals say they have closed caption services available (disclaimer: I have not checked this out). For people who are visually impaired, there are also accessibility programs that facilitate participation (same disclaimer, I have not checked this out).

Being part of an interdependent whole, measuring success beyond the limits of my physical life, sure feels good to me. I hope it feels good to you too.


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