VMS Community Blog
Posted October 1, 2018
by Brian Sweeney, Dean of Student Life for grades 9-10 and Upper School Humanities Teacher

I shared the following thoughts with students during an Upper School town meeting in September. This arose out of my desire to help our community navigate the tensions inherent with being a contributing member of a community while simultaneously attending to one's individual growth.

I want to begin today by expressing my gratitude for all of you, for the opportunity to share these thoughts, and for the time we have together in this space. Let’s start today by reflecting on our own experiences; this will lay the groundwork for my talk. I’d like you to sit quietly, close your eyes if you are comfortable doing so, and think about a time when you’ve felt successful.

Now think about what YOU did to arrive at that feeling of success, were there specific steps you took to arrive at that feeling, did it just come over you, were you surprised by it? Now think about what OTHERS did to help you arrive at that feeling of success, how did they support you?

Let’s shift to think about a time when you’ve experienced failure, how did you feel? What did YOU do to arrive at that feeling? Now think about what OTHERS did to cause this feeling of failure?

I’m going to talk to you today about the tension that society presents us between independence and interdependence. First, think for yourself about how YOU define the following terms: Independence, Reliance, Dependence, Self-reliance, Interdependence, Intradependence, Selfishness, and Selflessness. Now think about the narrative society writes about these terms. We’re told that independence is a sign of strength and success and reliance on others can be perceived as a weakness. However, we’re also told that we should be selfless, give generously, and be productive, caring members of our communities and society. Obviously self-reliance is a necessary and positive attribute that we learn from a young age: we tie our own shoes, we clean up after ourselves (some of us more reliably than others) and we are taught to make our academic work our own. However, we also know that our ability to rely on others can lead to great progress and allow us to achieve even more, collaboratively. At times, this creates tension, sure. However, there is, perhaps, a way forward.

Interestingly, in his time, Ralph Waldo Emerson combated those societal narratives by promoting individualism in the face of pressures to conform. However, Emerson’s individualism does not promote living in isolation of others. Emerson writes: “It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” Here Emerson highlights the value of maintaining one’s own, independent thought and character will still being able to live amongst a crowd. This concept of keeping the “independence of solitude in the midst of the crowd” pushes us to think about not living solely after the opinions of the world or ourselves. Instead, it asks us to be true to ourselves while recognizing the crowd’s role in our ability to do so. This is sharing in our successes and failures, in our joy and suffering.

And on the topic of interdependence and its impact on our joy and suffering, poet James Kavanaugh suggests that “Our sadness is as much a part of our lives as is our laughter. To share out sadness with one we love is perhaps as great a joy as we can know - unless it be to share our laughter.” And I think the key word in this is not sadness or laughter, though both are important human emotions. I want you to think about the importance of the word share in this context. To feel these important human emotions fully and learn from them all that they have to offer, Kavanaugh suggests we must share them with others.

I’d also like to share with you a thought from a dear friend of mine. Jason Opal was my mentor and professor at Colby College. While he is now teaching at McGill University, he shared the following thought when receiving an award for excellence in teaching at Colby. He reflected on his first year in college coming to the realization that he truly lived an interdependent life, sharing: “nothing I had done made any sense in isolation of what others had done for me.” Indeed, this humility and acceptance of interdependence does not ignore individual action and achievement, but places it in context of the reality that we are inherently linked to those around us.

So what? How do we acknowledge and live with interdependence? We know that interdependence does not mean that we are always reliant on others, nor does it mean we need to always act selflessly. However, I’d like to suggest that living in to the concept of interdependence is a call to reject selfishness and independence when they are at the cost of the growth of ourselves and our communities. Interdependence requires a willingness to be vulnerable. It asks us to pause and help when we’re able: to do dishes for others, to hold the door, to say thank you, and to wait to eat a meal until others are served. It means that we ought to take the field as a team, enjoy the company of new friends on a Ski Friday, and be grateful for the people and places we have in our life. Interdependence asks us to acknowledge that we are only as fulfilled as those around us and that we are inextricably linked to the wellbeing of others.

To make this tangible I’ll ask you to sit quietly and close your eyes once again. Think about when you’ve felt the power of this connection, this concept of interdependence that I’ve outlined for you.
  • Maybe it was gardening with your friend or parents
  • Maybe it was doing chores or helping with a project around your home
  • Maybe it was rock climbing, acting, or painting a mural as a group
  • Maybe it was yesterday in your house meeting
  • Maybe it will come during 4th period lunch today
  • Maybe it’s right now, as you reflect on your gratitude for one another, and the community you are part of.
Thank you for your time and for allowing me to be interdependent with all of you as we live to make one another's lives full of meaning and joy.

Brian Sweeney is the Dean of Student Life for grades 9-10 and teaches Upper School Humanities. He is also a 9th Grade Homebase Advisor and coaches soccer.