Borrowed Independence

When someone refers to something as a “house of cards,” they usually mean that while it looks impressive, it could collapse at any moment with even the slightest disruption. People often build their lives (or at least elements of them) this way – on borrowed independence.

When I was a teenager, one of my dearest friends was a homeless kid; a drifter about my age who I met in the weird ways kids meet. We became very fast friends and he grew to become like a brother to me. In many ways, he became like a literal brother because my saintly parents insisted that he live with us rather than on the street. We spent the final years of our adolescence together under one roof, and during that time he taught me many lessons that I might not have otherwise had cause to learn, due to my own more fortunate circumstances.

One of these lessons came in how he ate.

He was one of the family and every bit as much access to the household food supply as I did, but he ate exceedingly simply and consumed very little. One day I watched him make a very sparse peanut butter and jelly sandwich, then he cut it in half – putting one half away in the fridge and only eating half himself. I asked him if he wasn’t hungry, and he responded that he was very hungry, but that was all he was allowing himself. I misunderstood his motivations and said: “You know Mom and Dad don’t mind if you eat more!”

He laughed and said he knew, but that wasn’t why. He’d learned a hard lesson, which was that anything given could be taken away. At first I was insulted, but he explained that he didn’t mean that my family’s love was transient, but rather that the circumstances weren’t under his control. He had no way of guaranteeing anything, recognized that he wasn’t owed anything, and so he didn’t want to grow used to more and put himself in danger.

“In danger of what,” I asked. “Of having it taken away again?”

“That,” he said, “and of having to make bad deals to keep it.”

His reality was such that he could never be sure where generosity was coming from. What if he allowed himself to become comfortable on someone else’s generosity and then something turns south – what would he have to do in order to keep his stake?

In my adulthood, I’ve seen this happen again and again. People get a benefit from someone else, and they allow themselves to incorporate that into their lifestyle as if they’d earned it. Then, it either gets taken away and suddenly you’re in real trouble, or the source starts asking for more and more in order to keep it up, and you’re stuck. It’s a form of control, and it can be a form of abuse.

If you’re a young adult, first striking out on your own, don’t let your parents pay a thousand bucks towards your rent every month. Find roommates, live in a worse apartment, whatever it takes to not borrow that independence. If they’re kind and good people, let them put that same amount of money towards an emergency fund for you instead, but don’t let other people be responsible for part of your base lifestyle costs. You need that to be yours in order to grow, to change, and to make choices for yourself.

And as you age, keep it up. Find your own way in things, even if the path seems harder. Better a harder path on solid ground with your own feet and brain making the choices than a house of cards someone else has built.

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