We live in an age of independence. Individuality is celebrated and encouraged from a young age. Western culture and education are aimed at developing individuals who will forge an independent life for themselves. We are taught to be self-reliant and not to ‘be a burden’ on anyone else. I have largely subscribed to this point of view. From an early age, I was a very independent and motivated child, who did not want much help from my mother (I think she found this quite hard). This continued as a young adult. I left home early and managed my life without parental support. After studies and a few years of working, I left South Africa at age 25 and travelled the world on my own for 18 months. A few years later, I moved alone to Canada and lived there for three years, before returning to settle in Durban. While nearly two decades of marriage has tempered my independence somewhat, it is still a strong frame of reference in my life.
However, a simple incident recently got me thinking about whether independence is overrated. I had brought home a jigsaw puzzle from a downsizing client to check if it had all the pieces. There was no box and hence no image for reference. The puzzle was a map of the world and the puzzle pieces were unusual shapes and sizes, some very large and some tiny. I had spread it out on the dining room table, and was making very slow progress, my knowledge of world geography worse than I thought. Eventually, in frustration, I asked my husband to help me. Now Tony is not a jigsaw puzzle guy; but he kindly joined me at the table.
And then a remarkable thing happened. As he worked on one part of the puzzle, I started to find pieces that fit in another section that I had been struggling with. At times, each of us found pieces that fit the section that the other was working on. Within 15 minutes of working together, the puzzle that I had been labouring on for ages alone, was done. Just having him there, working on the puzzle with me, made an enormous difference.
A recent change in my working life has shifted my thinking too. I have been working as a professional organiser for over eight years. Occasionally, I would bring a helper along for big or heavy jobs, but mainly worked alone with my clients. That is, until last year. Londiwe Gasa joined me last July on a big five day job clearing a deceased estate. She was a great help, and so she began to work for me on other projects as needed. At the beginning of this year, we formalised our working relationship. What has surprised me is how much I am enjoying having a partner on our jobs. Having the practical and physical help has been wonderful because I struggle with back pain, but it is more than that. We have developed a great rapport and a seamless way of working together as a team that has enhanced how my business functions.
Frequently, when I am working with my organising or downsizing clients, they will say to me, “This is so much easier when I am working with you”. Certainly, I do bring specific skills and experience to my job that are helpful to my clients. However, more often than not, what my clients are emphasising is that it is so much easier to do something with a supportive person than alone. I call this the ‘power of presence’ – just by being there, the job at hand seems easier, more manageable. The puzzle experience gave me a taste of what my clients are feeling.
Sometimes, all they need is a sounding board, a non-judgemental person with no attachment to them or their things, to talk things through. And in so doing, my presence helps them turn an overwhelming task into something quite achievable.
If you are facing a particular challenge, and if you are fiercely independent, I challenge you to question the idea that we must always solve our problems alone. Working with Londiwe has taught me how much more we can achieve in a shorter time when we choose to pair ourselves with a supportive person. There is no shame in asking for help. In fact, our lives are enriched when we choose to share them with others. Interdependence is far better the independence.