It has become a badge of honor for a man to let others know that he is “self-made.” That is, he did not receive help on his way to success. This idea in our culture is partially rooted in the belief that a man must be completely independent in order to truly be free. It is also rooted in the deeply held belief in our culture that not needing anything from anyone on the road to success is a noble thing. These beliefs carry with them the underlying assumption that real men do not need help, that real men “go at it alone.” In fact, in our society, a man with the capacity to accomplish something seemingly without any help is admired and respected. Meanwhile, if a man constantly needs help to reach his goals, it is oftentimes seen as a sign of weakness.
Contrary to what many of us have been taught, however, these beliefs are completely in conflict with our humanity. Being human means that flourishing in life will simply not happen without the help of others. From birth, we are needy. We need mothers to birth and nurture us, fathers to protect and encourage us, friends to support us and walk with us when we are young. And the need for support does not stop when we become adults. Even as men, we are still in need of support.
If we are really honest with ourselves, this idea that real men “go at it alone” without help is rooted in pride; that is, our desire to avoid any appearance of vulnerability or weakness. Pride persuades us that we have more value, and appear stronger, as men if we are able to achieve success on our own, without any help. Our pride creates in us a desire to prove that we can do something that others cannot do. It creates a desire in us to sit above other men as the prototype for success and masculinity, rather than learning and growing from the leadership and mentorship of others.
As a result of the pride-driven view in our culture, manhood has overtime come to be defined by a “go at it alone” approach to life. However, to define manhood this way ruins the sense of community we functionally need and depend on to be successful as men. Both the success and character of a man is the collective byproduct of not only his own efforts, but of those who support him. We all need mentors, coaches, directors, and teachers. We need to learn from those who’ve gone before us and lived the lives we seek to experience. We all depend on wise guides that correct us when we are foolish and celebrate us when we excel.
Not only is this support vital to our personal success as men, but it is also vital for the success of the men around us. The same way we need support from others, they need support from us. Not having this exchange of support amongst men in our culture has forced so many of us to struggle, having to face life’s challenges without the much needed input and wisdom of the men that have come before us.
The truth is that, throughout our lives, we will never stop functionally depending on people and things outside of us. Therefore, although “independence,” rightly understood, is an important virtue for men to cultivate, a proper understanding of “dependence” is also built into the framework of being a man. In other words, since we will always need help as men, the question is not “if” we are to be dependent. Rather, it is “what” is the proper balance between our need to be dependent and our desire to be independent and “who” are we designed to depend on .
While it is true that a man that is overly dependent on others and who refuses to take responsibility for his life is unwise, a proper or balanced sense of dependency can be a healthy thing for us to develop. Instead of denying or resisting our need to depend on others at times, we must learn to be “interdependent.” Interdependency is a balance between our need to be dependent on others for support and our desire to be independent as men. Being interdependent means that, while we work as hard as we can independently to achieve success in life, we are not too proud to seek out, accept, and depend on the support of others to help us in areas where we may fall short. When we seek to live interdependent lives, when help and support is sought in conjunction with our own hard work and diligent efforts, it is not weakness. Rather, it is a proper and healthy dependency.
Although it is contrary to the idea of the “self-made” man, true strength is indeed found when we learn the power of proper and health dependency. The power of healthy dependency is the strength that comes from combining our strength as men with the help and support of others. Real men aren’t afraid to say they need help. On the contrary, in weakness, we reach out to others for strength. In ignorance, we reach out to others for knowledge. In inexperience, we reach out to others for wisdom. In suffering, we reach out to others for compassion and love. If we fail to do so, we will never grow past our own limitations and weaknesses to find this true strength.
If we are to truthly be interdependent, if we are to cultivate a culture of healthy dependency, and if we are to get the help and support we need to be successful as men, then it’s essential that we dismantle this “go at it alone” mentality within ourselves, as well as within our spheres of influence. It has not helped us become better men. Rather, it has only hindered our quest for a full interdependent expression of masculinity. Therefore, we must create a culture as men where a healthy dependence on the support of others during points throughout our journey is not seen as a sign of irresponsibility or weakness. Rather, it should be seen as an acknowledgement of our limits as men and a call to make space for others to invest into our lives. Instead of depending on others for support at times being seen as something that diminishes our value as men, it should be seen as a tool that equips and empowers us to live out our call to lead selflessly and courageously.
How are we to cultivate a healthy dependency within our relationships as men? How do we find the true strength and power that can only be received when we acknowledge our need for one another? One important first step we must take is to move beyond the need to prove that we are better than the man next to us by competing and comparing ourselves with him. There is nothing wrong with being competitive. But when we compete with one another as means to prove that we are better than the man next to us, we are being driven by pride and a faulty view of manhood. Likewise, comparing ourselves to other men without knowing the personal struggles they face leads to either an unjust critique or unworthy praise of other men. Neither will help us to cultivate a culture of healthy dependency.
Instead of being driven by a desire to prove that we are better than the man next to us through competition and comparison, we must learn to be led by a desire to contribute and to build community within our spheres of influence. Each man, created with inherent dignity and value, has a necessary contribution to society. Focusing on our personal contribution reminds us that we have something good to offer to others. In the same way, a desire to build community teaches us that others have something we need as well. Admitting our need opens opportunities for us to receive wisdom and knowledge from other men with experience and expertise and to learn from younger men with youthful energy and cultural sensitivity. When we learn to depend on others in these healthy ways, we’ll see a greater sense of community emerge and more men pursuing the collective cause of human flourishing within our society.