If you’re like me and spend a probably questionable chunk of your daylight hours on Twitter, you’ve probably seen those tweets floating around that all say some iteration of “Nobody owes you anything.” They don’t you owe their time, respect, conversation, support, etc. Some tweets go as far as including family and friends in this. This theory is often intertwined with the concept of emotional labor.
At first, I agreed with the sentiment. To some extent. I was raised by a dad whose brand of feminism was “you can have anything you want, but no one is going to give it to you.” I generally have very low expectations for what the universe owes me. But, I did think the dynamics were different between people that I had an actual relationship with. I know we live in the iron-fisted grip of capitalism, and a lot of our relationships are transactional, but I balked at applying those dynamics to people I love.
Over the last few months, I’ve been thinking of this concept a lot more. What do the people I love owe me? What do I owe them? If nobody truly owes anyone else anything, how do we create community?
The conclusion I’ve come to (and as always, feel free to slide into those DMs and fight me) is that self-reliance is an oppressive symptom of the socio-economic system we live in and honestly, all-together a very shitty thing to aspire to.
Self-reliance seems kind of like a libertarian wet-dream. It’s the alienation capitalism causes alongside its glorification of hyperindividualism. We are called to be islands.
But self-reliance is not an equal-opportunity dream. For women it’s a catch 22. Independence is aspirational. As young women we are told to be wary of leaning on our partners too much (codependency is so last decade), as mothers we are told to lean in, eschewing spousal or filial support in what is supposed to be the highest calling of our lives. And conversely, we are often punished for it. We are cold if we do not need our lovers enough, leaning in either gets us branded as bad mothers or bad employees. By trying to be independent we are held back.
Independence is a masculine ideal, some sort of Emersonian fantasy of the completely self-reliant man. Men do not need, they are needed. This leaves men often bereft of the language necessary to communicate the needs we all have.
But it’s not simply a gendered problem. The most privileged in our society are often the most dependent on others, while being lauded at the same time as independent paragons of industry and success. The wealthy often stand on the shoulders of their wealthy ancestors, they have connections, family support. They were raised with a safety net and therefore, feel comfortable enough to leap. On the other hand, poverty is often a result of forced, disastrous independence. It’s much easier to become homeless, become incarcerated, or fall into addiction when you have no one to rely on. No one is in a place of safety with a couch to sleep on or extra funds to loan you.
With all of that being said, let’s go back to “no one owes you anything.” I think the issue with the statement lies in the word “owe.” From a purely biological perspective, humans are social creatures. We need each other. Our instincts to reach out for help or support or to offer those things to each other is not the act of paying off some cosmic debt we owe to each other. It’s not a matter of owing, it’s a matter of simply giving.
In “Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?” author Katrine Marcal writes:
“Economics has been described as the science of how you conserve love. The basic idea is: love is scarce. It’s difficult to love your neighbor, not to mention your neighbor’s neighbor. Therefore we must conserve our love and not use it up unnecessarily. If we fuel our society with it, there won’t be any left over for our private lives.”
I’m not so idealistic (or hippie-dippie) as to hope for a society based on love. But I do, in some way, think we “owe” each other something. Until someone hurts us, or abuses our kindness, I think we have a responsibility to give them our best selves.