As Independence Day approached, I decided to google the root word “depends.” The origin of “depends” goes back to the Latin terms “de” meaning down and “pendere” meaning “hang.” Hence the dual and often conflicting definition of both “needing or requiring support” (e.g. “I depend on you”) and “undecided or open to influence” (e.g.“It depends”)
Many Americans have a strong aversion to the idea of dependency or even its softer cousin, “interdependency.” So baked into our national founding story is the idea of independence. We were after all, announcing our independence from England and proclaiming our personal freedom as an inherent, inalienable right.
Yet, at the same time, we were also acknowledging that our future success as a nation was contingent on each other.
As Benjamin Franklin famously said, “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” A master wordsmith, linguist and wit, I wonder if his choice of “hang” was a deliberate reference back to the original Latin definition of depend.
Most Americans would probably find many of the synonyms for “depend” – confide, entrust, bank on, call on, lean on, look to – more accepting. They sound more personable and invoke thoughts of how we might consider our relationships to our friends and family. This is in stark contrast to the negative stereotypes we associate with dependency on government. Although ironically, aren’t we the government? It is our tax dollars and our representatives that provide certain benefits to our fellow citizens.
My brother recently told me about a regular practice within the Harley Davidson plant where he works. Their internal newsletter often notes when a former employee has died or someone in the plant falls on hard times. A box is placed in the entry to the plant, where employees give money to the families to help ease their suffering. Typically thousands of dollars are raised. Many who donate don’t know the families personally but give anyway.
Does the family “depend” on this gift? Who is to tell. But they can bank on it.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if that’s the way we all thought about our relationship to one another? That all Americans can depend on each other to do the right thing, to step up when one of their fellow citizens needs help.
We’re clearly not there now. We prefer to pick and choose who we think deserves our help. But could we get there some day? I don’t know, I guess it just depends. (Apologies for leaving you hanging.)
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