I like to lean. Too much of the time I have to hold myself up, so if an opportunity to swoon presents itself, I take it. When I’m getting a haircut and the lady asks me to lean back into the basin for a shampoo, I let myself melt. My muscles go slack, my eyes fall shut, and there is nothing holding me except gravity and the chair and the water and her hands on my head. I feel my tears of bliss slide into the suds.
In photos I am often leaning. When I’m not resting my head on someone’s shoulder, I am hugging a column in a haunted castle in Great Barrington or bracing myself against a big block of basalt on a pedestal in a Barcelona park. At home alone, I improvise with bookshelves and doorjambs, but sometimes I need to lean on something alive. Seeking support on a stormy night, I run out into the rain and lean against the dogwood tree in front of my house until the wet bark soaks through my coat. The world is my trellis.
Ten years ago, I bought a Gordon Parks print of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward leaning against each other by lamplight on a big brass bed. They are sitting side by side, eyes closed, serene. He is leaning more heavily, his body slanted into hers, his head on her shoulder. She is resting more gently, her cheek against the top of his head. Her face is half-illuminated, half-eclipsed. They seem solemn and private and young. He is quiet in her shadow.
I hung the photograph over my bed. Next to it I tacked another 1950s Paul and Joanne picture I tore out of a book. They are leaning on a bed again, and he is still slumped against her shoulder, but this time the lean seems more in league with an audience. They are both meeting the photographer’s gaze and smiling small smiles. Her eyebrows are slightly raised; she might be sly or smug. She is holding a cup of tea in one hand, and his head, proprietarily, with the other. He is supine and sated and holding a glass of wine.
Paul and Joanne liked to lean for the camera. For their 1968 LIFE cover promoting Rachel, Rachel (she starred, he directed), they are layered on wall-to-wall carpet; she is reclining in the foreground, and he is her blue-eyed backrest. In yet another famous photo from an earlier era (Joanne is still in gingham, not yet in Pucci), they are leaning back to back with their shoulders against each other, their mutual pressure holding each other up, with an isosceles triangle of space between them, and a sturdy baseline of brick patio beneath them.
I like to fall asleep under images of leaning every night and wake up beneath them every day.
I like to believe that leaning is love.
I was raised to believe in the romance of leaning. My parents turned the tale of how they met into a bedtime story, and they told it to us until we had it memorized. My dad’s version was simple and sunny: My mom showed up at the commune where he was living, a vision of loveliness in green corduroy pants, and it was love at first sight. My mom’s version was heavier. She was a moody adolescent, with formless feelings that often overwhelmed her, and a future that loomed without a shape. She was nineteen when she met my dad, and he seemed youthfully exuberant and dependably good: someone she could structure her life around. They married within a few months.
I was raised to believe in the romance of leaning. My parents turned the tale of how they met into a bedtime story, and they told it to us until we had it memorized.
What happened ever after was not part of the story they told me and my siblings, but we could see it playing out before us as the years went by. My mom could depend on my dad to work hard, hammering nails and hauling two-by-fours in all kinds of weather, slowly and quickly wrecking his body to try to pay the bills. My dad could depend on my mom to stay in the marriage and to keep six kids fed, clothed, washed, wrangled, read to, and rested, even when he broke his back on the job site falling from a high, rain-slicked beam onto the concrete foundation and was immobilized for six months; even when he was unemployed for a year and a half and people from church who knew we were broke were delivering food to our door; even when he became almost catatonic with depression for years, no longer recognizable as the man she had married.
I was formed by this story, both as an aspiration and as a cautionary tale, and in my own youthful romances I leaned heavily. I was moody like my mom, plagued by sudden spells of panic, and depressed like my dad, susceptible to an undertow of doom, so I spent most of my twenties in long-term relationships with men who seemed so even-keeled that they couldn’t be capsized—so sunny and strong that they couldn’t possibly lapse into sadness for long.
My college boyfriend was a safe person to lean on. He had a saintly serenity that came from his mystical and untroubled religious faith; the years he’d spent as the precociously responsible son of an intermittently single mother; the hours he spent fishing, mountain biking, and stargazing in the countryside; and his nightly dose of marijuana. He was warm to the core, and utterly unfazed by my dependence on him. It might even have reassured him.
My grad school boyfriend was a much more dangerous person for a leaner to date. He was attracted to vulnerable women, but he disapproved of dependency. When I was in a writing vortex he would bring me sandwiches and coffee and give me expert editorial advice, and when I was shaking with fear and dark thoughts I couldn’t name, he would hold me until his warmth and weight and smell and steady breathing soothed me. But he also told me, not as a threat but as a simple statement of fact (but of course it felt like a threat, and it was a threat), that he needed to know that any woman he was with would be fine and functional either with or without him. He did not sign up for panic attacks and yawning existential dread. If I wanted to be with him for the long haul, I would have to get it together.
And so I mostly did. For years I lived with the knowledge that if I ceased to be a successful, self-motivated, ambitious, size-six Ivy League blonde, I would lose love. And I knew I couldn’t live without love, so I stayed as successful and self-motivated and ambitious and size-six and Ivy League and blonde as I could. I formed friendships to tide me over between our times together. I learned to self-soothe. I tried to quell myself.
The paradox was that my newfound self-reliance was a symptom of my utter reliance on him. I depended on his demand that I not depend. I leaned on not leaning on him.
The irony was he left me anyway.
I blamed our breakup on Ralph Waldo Emerson. Almost the whole time we were dating, my grad school boyfriend was writing his dissertation on Emerson, who is best known as the author of “Self-Reliance”—the ultimate anti-leaning manifesto. (After we broke up I wrote my dissertation on feelings.) “Self-Reliance” is a soaring sermonic essay that has so permeated American popular consciousness that it reads at times like clusters of vaguely libertarian coffee-mug quotes:
Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.
Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.
Insist on yourself; never imitate.
My friend Mary tells me that she often sees Emerson name-checked on men’s dating profiles along with Bukowski and David Foster Wallace as part of a macho literary trifecta.
The self-reliant man, as Emerson describes him, seems like he would make for a comically terrible boyfriend, simultaneously entitled, dismissive, and hard to get. He has “the nonchalance of boys who are sure of a dinner, and would disdain as much as a lord to do or say aught to conciliate one”:
independent, irresponsible, looking out from his corner on such people and facts as pass by, he tries and sentences them on their merits, in the swift, summary way of boys, as good, bad, interesting, silly, eloquent, troublesome. He cumbers himself never about consequences, about interests: he gives an independent, genuine verdict. You must court him: he does not court you.
We know this man. He is Rhett Butler, Mr. Big, Wyatt Earp, Donald Trump. (Or rather: He is the person Donald Trump is trying to seem to be.) He’s a high plains drifter; a gambler and a ghoster. He’s a lone cowboy judging the world from under the brim of his hat. My own grad student version was deceptively mild-mannered and soft-spoken and wore button-downs and khakis, and I courted him like crazy.
I courted him both despite and because of the fact that I’ve always fiercely disapproved of Emerson’s version of self-reliance, both in practice and on principle. Emerson believes in self-made men, but I experience myself as someone formed and sustained by others’ love and patience, by student loans and stipends, by the kindness of strangers. Emerson thinks of people as independent individuals, like an orderly orchard of freestanding trees, but I see them as an overgrown tangle of undergrowth, mulch, mushrooms, and moss, or as an indivisible ocean of brinedrops. I believe we are all obviously a part of each other, elements of one ecosystem, members of one body, all of us at the mercy of capitalism, weather, genes, and fate. Independence, to me, is nothing but a dangerous delusion. So I pushed back. And the more my craving to lean was thwarted, the more I defended my desire to depend, maybe even my right to depend. (Hence the shout-out in my ex’s book acknowledgments: “Thanks to Briallen Hopper for her skepticism about Emersonian self-fashioning.”)
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What I didn’t fully understand at the time is that maybe my swooning and skepticism were as necessary to my ex as his sunny sturdiness was to me. Because classic American self-reliance is often expressed as a defensive response to a gendered set of threats. As Emerson puts it: “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.” And it’s impossible to ignore that these threats are often figured as feminine. The essay’s epigraph is a poem calling for a baby boy to be cast out into the wild so he can be nursed by a wolf instead of a woman, and grow up to be tough instead of weak. The disapproval of an educated consensus is described as a kind of “feminine rage” to be scorned; an outmoded theory is a “harlot” to be fled from. “Self-Reliance” is a man’s world, but it requires many metaphorical women in the wings acting like milky, emotional, seductive sirens. And that was a role that my twenty-something self-felt born to play, no matter how shameful it might be.
Because for Emerson, the primary emotional threat posed by dependence is shame. There’s shame in agreeing with what someone else says instead of being the person to say it first (i.e., being “forced to take with shame our own opinion from another”). There’s shame in being an object of empathy (Emerson believes the person we feel sorry for should be “ashamed of our compassion”). And there’s shame in capitulating to requests for help (“I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold”).
As it happens, none of the supposedly shameful things Emerson mentions has ever made me feel ashamed. Unlike Emerson, I love it when someone says what I’ve been thinking; it makes me feel less alone. I crave commiseration—I often sigh melodramatically, hoping my roommates will hear and ask what’s wrong so I can complain at ludicrous length. I am endlessly susceptible to GoFundMes and nonprofit fundraising appeals, and I try to remember to carry cash for panhandlers. (We are all members of one body; we are all at the mercy of fate.)
Still, as the adoring girlfriend of an aspiring Emersonian, I found myself tangled up in shame. My shame came not from the consciousness of my utter dependence but in my perverse attraction to a man who represented every clichéd, obvious all-American thing I didn’t want to want: unshakable entitlement, supreme self-satisfaction, and the seemingly effortless ability to wake up cheerful every day and be confident and productive and tall and Southern Californian and win prizes and eat vegetables and go to the gym like clockwork. It was as though through loving him I was outsourcing my craving for independent individualism and discernible muscle definition. I wanted white male privilege by association. I was frankly in love with it. It wasn’t pretty. And my resulting shame spirals were simultaneously unsustainable and hot.
I blamed our breakup on Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Because shame is hot. It’s a flush, a burning, a fire glowing behind your ears and between your legs and underneath your toes. I was ashamed that I needed him emotionally and existentially in ways he didn’t seem to need me. I was ashamed of my desire to hitch my wagon to his star so he could tug us both to overeducated upper-middle-class security and possibly the New York Times Weddings section. And I was ashamed of my willingness to settle for a love life in which my desire to twine like a vine was constantly thwarted by a man who was always carefully disentangling himself from my tendrils and tentacles.
(At one point, years before we broke up, he Microsoft Painted an ostensibly affectionate cartoon of me as a blonde octopus in bright red lipstick, eager to surround him with all my arms, as he wielded a mortar trowel and built a brick wall to keep me away. The picture was doom in pixels—there was no recovering from it—but it was also the way we stayed together so long: turning our difficult love into a cutting joke. Meanwhile, frustrated by his unassailable self-sufficiency, which felt like a challenge I couldn’t refuse, I called him undentable; the Teflon Boyfriend; the Unmoved Mover. He would chuckle ruefully, and then open his arms and give me another crack at him.)
Toward the end of “Self-Reliance,” Emerson writes admiringly about how the typical Maori man (or “naked New Zealander”) is, unlike effete white Americans, immune to wounds: “If the traveller tell us truly, strike the savage with a broad axe, and in a day or two the flesh shall unite and heal as if you struck the blow into soft pitch, and the same blow shall send the white to his grave.”
This is obviously a convenient belief for a settler colonial to have, since it makes any amount of white violence against brown people seem as harmless as slicing tar. It’s also a vision of self-reliant masculinity that is inhuman, even monstrous. Emerson idealizes beings who are so independent that they can survive all-out assault without any need for succor, sympathy, or balm.
In his book, amidst hundreds of pages of praise, my ex briefly describes the most extreme form of Emersonian self-reliance as “an almost grotesque invulnerability.” When I read that fleeting phrase years later I saw a trace of my own skeptical perspective; a slight scar I had left on his invulnerable pitch perfect mind.
Emerson wants men to know that “they are not leaning willows, but can and must detach themselves.” I was a leaning willow, and when my man could and did detach himself from me, I learned that leaning willows, unlike mighty oaks, are built to withstand quakes and storms. They can bend almost to the ground without breaking.
At first I didn’t know I wasn’t broken. When I found myself abruptly single after six serially monogamous years, I thought I was thrown back on myself, a vine without a trellis. I made a long and ridiculous list of 102 things I thought I’d lost forever, including meaning, hope, sanity, security, snowball fights, the Sunday New York Times, consolation, ecstasy, peace, pleasure, ritual and tradition, teasing, making dinner, quotidian contentment, taking care of someone, being taken care of, leaning on someone, and the Pacific Ocean. (My ex and I had driven up and down the Pacific Coast Highway together, and when I divided up our memories in my mind, he got everything.) I honestly believed that as far as I was concerned all joy in life was gone, and the ocean bed was dry.
I had come to a pivot point: a moment when I could have turned in desperation to the next plausible straight man to lean on, or, failing that, tried to reinvent myself as a self-reliant, independent Emersonian cowgirl. In the end I did neither: I was too wary to fall back into love, and too much of a leaner not to lean. But I wasn’t yet sure what a third option would be, and in the meantime I kept sinking deeper into shame.
Once, as an antidote to a shame spiral of her own, Joan Didion wrote herself a modern woman’s version of “Self-Reliance” called “On Self-Respect.” It’s an essay so consummately cool that, even though I’m hopelessly wedded to dependence, I’m still sometimes tempted to dip it in ice water and drape it across my brow whenever the shame fever starts to rise. It represents a path not taken; a way I occasionally imagine my life could have gone had I been constructed with fewer tendrils and a bit more fiber.
Like me, Didion was once a young woman reeling from rejection, but she’d been rejected by Phi Beta Kappa, not by a man in khakis. In the wake of this rebuff, which shattered her belief that her various merits “automatically guaranteed me not only Phi Beta Kappa keys but happiness, honour, and the love of a good man,” she rebuilt her system of values. Instead of depending on honor societies and external accolades for her worth, she decided to depend on herself. “Although to be driven back upon oneself is an uneasy affair at best,” she writes, “rather like trying to cross a border with borrowed credentials, it seems to me now the one condition necessary to the beginnings of real self-respect.”
It’s hard for me to imagine a less self-sufficient scenario than an attempted illicit border crossing—one is dependent first of all on someone to borrow credentials from, and then on the unpredictable power of border officials. But for Didion, there is something liberating about the idea of moving through the world without worrying about stamps of approval. “People with self-respect exhibit a certain toughness, a kind of moral nerve; they display what was once called character,” she declares. Character, for Didion, is “the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life.” The essay is written in the clear, uncompromising voice of a woman who leans against yellow Stingrays and Malibu balconies and nothing else.
When she wrote the essay in 1961, Didion, a fifth-generation Californian raised in a military family, was still a libertarian Republican, a Goldwater Girl in the making. Perhaps it is not such a surprise that as examples of self-respect, she invokes, unironically, the Victorian Major General Charles Gordon, who “put on a clean white suit and held Khartoum against the Mahdi”; the British soldiers who learned to fight on the playing fields of Eton; the British imperialists who insisted on dressing for dinner in the middle of the jungle; her own Californian settler ancestor Narcissa Cornwall, who reacted “coolly” when her house was swarmed with “strange Indians”; and, of course, Rhett Butler. Didion is also a fan of “the careless, incurably dishonest Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby,” who “took her own measure, made her own peace, avoided threats to that peace.”
People who don’t make the cut as models for Didionesque self-respect include some fairly formidable heroines: Cathy in Wuthering Heights (too dramatic) and Helen Keller (too dependent on Annie Sullivan, the blind teacher who taught her how to speak sign language and read and write Braille). Indians, meanwhile, are neither self-respecting nor the reverse, but simply an opportunity for white people to prove their own coolness: “People who respect themselves are willing to accept the risk that the Indians will be hostile.”
Though Didion is careful not to conflate self-respect with undentable masculinity (she openly admires “that genius for accommodation more often seen in women than in men”), it’s not difficult to see how her scorn for dependent disability à la Keller or public passion à la Cathy echoes Emerson’s distaste for weakness and woundedness, just as it’s impossible to ignore how much the glamour of Didion’s tough and cool attitude depends on the dubious mythologies of Manifest Destiny, Gone with the Wind, and fabulous Roaring Twenties parties thrown by the one percent. To revere these mythologies as Didion does requires you to see self-respect in cowboys and not Indians; in Rhett and not Mammy; in Jordan Baker and not the residents of the valley of ashes.
Didion’s existentialist insistence on the authenticity of aloneness has been harder for me to dismiss. It’s tempting to attempt to redeem rejection by reimagining it, as she does, as a kind of purification process, a necessary stripping away of the obscuring tangle of social mendacity. Didion believes that the person you are when you’re alone is the person you really are. “Self-deception remains the most difficult deception,” she writes. “The charms that work on others count for nothing in that devastatingly well-lit back alley where one keeps assignations with oneself.” Others may fall prey to our obfuscation or be taken in by our charm, but a self-respecting self sees itself at its worst (Didion meets herself in an alley; I imagine my own hypothetical self-confrontation happening in an empty locker room, each self-naked, goose-bumped, and floodlit by fluorescents), and coolly accepts itself for what it is.
Without such unflinching self-respect, Didion believes, one can’t help but become a captive audience for what must be the worst film in the world: “an interminable home movie that documents one’s failings, both real and imagined, with fresh footage spliced in for every screening. There’s the glass you broke in anger, there’s the hurt on X’s face; watch now, this next scene, the night Y came back from Houston, see how you muff this one.” From this sour cinematic experience it is but a short step to insomnia and despair. “To live without self-respect,” she explains, “is to lie awake some night, beyond the reach of warm milk, phenobarbital, and the sleeping hand on the coverlet, counting up the sins of commission and omission, the trusts betrayed, the promises subtly broken, the gifts irrevocably wasted through sloth or cowardice or carelessness.” Sleeping alone is the existentialist endgame, the would-be self-reliant self-respecter’s ultimate test. “However long we postpone it,” she warns, “we eventually lie down alone in that notoriously uncomfortable bed, the one we make ourselves. Whether or not we sleep in it depends, of course, on whether or not we respect ourselves.”
I was formed by this story, both as an aspiration and as a cautionary tale, and in my own youthful romances I leaned heavily.
Didion isn’t wrong about the self-lacerating documentary screening in HD and surround sound at inconvenient hours. I have seen that movie before (my own personal version is titled Shame Spiral: The Reckoning), and insomnia is occasionally how it ends. But only sometimes. Most of the time, for me, it ends with sleep.
In fact, over the years my own experience of a solitary bed has been far from Didionesque. It’s actually become quite comfortable, whether despite or because of the fact that I’ve done my best to avoid confronting myself naked and alone under grim bluish lights. If I were to catch a glimpse of myself, I don’t expect I’d respect what I saw. I admit that my ability to sleep without self-respect is probably a symptom of the self-obfuscation that lulls me into complacency and lets me off the hook. But I’m not truly troubled by this possibility because, unlike Didion, I don’t believe that my solitary self is my truest self. I’m not even sure that my solitary self exists at all.
My skepticism about the authenticity of solitude is partly rooted in experience. I don’t see why the person I am when I’m rising to the occasion for students in the classroom is less truly myself than the person I am when I come home and kick off my shoes and collapse on the couch. There are verses of hymns I know by heart that I can only remember in church, but they’ll still be a part of me till I die. I never feel more myself than when I’m writing, and I always write for readers. My sisters know I’m bossy and my friends know I’m kind, and when I’m alone I’m neither, but really I’m both. My identity is not an independent state.
I can’t imagine a solitary self even in theory. What would it even mean, after all, to be truly alone with yourself, an independent and dispassionate critic of your own individual character? You would need to be able to trace the contours of your personality as if they had never meant anything to anyone; to scour your brain of love’s neural traces; to forget where your hands have been. You would need a body and soul free of microscopic chimeras, unmarked by social judgments past and present. You would need to redact yourself from every file and delete yourself from every inbox. You would need an unlisted number and a rotary phone with a severed cord. You would need to have forgotten all the books you’d read, or never read them in the first place. You would need to be the last living speaker of a dying language. You would need to have been abandoned as an infant by a wolf who refused to raise you.
I could never clear away the cloud of social meaning that surrounds and supports me, and I don’t see why I should want to try.
In the wake of my breakup, after my initial collapse, I didn’t think I would ever lean again. But when I instinctively turned to my friends, not daring to hope for anything more than some social sorrow-drowning, I was met with surprisingly sturdy affection, and I unexpectedly learned to lean more confidently and steadily than I ever had before. Rather than resting all my weight on one unreliable man, I began to spread myself out. I learned to practice mutual, broadly distributed leaning: to depend on care that was neither compulsory nor conditional, and on lavish, unrationed, unanticipated kindness.
The forms of love that had once been ancillary and supplemental became, collectively, everything. In the winter I threw and dodged snowballs again. In the summer I raced my friend down a beach under the bright suspended-steel span of the Golden Gate Bridge and got my ocean back. And I began the long process of learning how to lean without the simultaneously reassuring and panicking pressure of a marriage plot, or any other plot. The urgent question of my twenties was always, “Is this relationship going somewhere?” Was the steel strong enough? Was the engineering sound? Was the love sturdy enough to bear a lifetime’s worth of weight? It never was. But leaning on friends is never going anywhere, it is not proof of anything, and there are no mandatory standards for it to meet or fail to meet. You just find yourself together, side by side, and then one day you are depending on each other, bearing each other’s burdens, basking in each other’s warmth, for decades or only for a moment.
“To free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves—there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect,” Didion writes. “Without it, one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find oneself, and finds no one at home.” But what if locating yourself by yourself is like trying to use a compass without the North Pole, and what if the expectations of others are constellations to navigate by? What if self-possession is the tautology you are trying to escape?
Didion was thrown back on herself, but I was thrown back on my friends.
Although to be driven back on your friends is an uneasy affair at best, rather like falling from a fire escape into the net below, for me it was the one condition necessary to the beginning of sustainable dependence, and accepting my need to depend without shame. Because despite what America and Emerson would have us believe, “self-reliance” is often less a virtue than a myth. And it has been clear to me, from the first day I was supposedly on my own, that independence is impossible for me, even if I wanted it. As Elizabeth Warren reminds us, we do not build the roads we drive on or rely on our own personal firetrucks to put out our house fires, and this principle holds true for our emotional infrastructure as well.
To do without the illusion of independence is to be given a new vision of our painful past through the filter of friendship. It is a reprieve from the relentless self-scrutiny of the independent lens; it is a newly restored home movie that documents the miraculous moments our own severity or selective memory might have forced us to forget. Look, there’s the time you rose to the occasion, and there’s the time you were surprised by kindness; watch now, this next scene, the night I needed you, see how you were there to meet me. Even our faults and flaws can become bearable when mediated through the eyes of others, since our closest friends can show us the awful sides of ourselves that we would never have seen, but in ways that sharpen us instead of wearing us away.
To give up on self-reliance and self-respect is to trade the harshness of insomnia for the bliss of drowsiness. It is to lie half-asleep at night with your phone resting against your ear, listening to your friend regale you with stories of jokes shared, promises kept, gifts given.
To give us back to each other—there lies the great, the singular power of learning to lean on others. Without it, one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find love, and finds only oneself.
I’ve spent more than a decade now leaning broadly and shamelessly, and I no longer worry that I’ll break or fall. When I start to panic or lose myself I just make a call, or place my palm against a plinth until I’m steady. My fierce dependence has never failed me yet. It’s become second nature.
It’s natural to me now, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. And it’s hard partly because dependence is so despised in our culture, from psychology to politics. To radically revise Emerson: “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the leaning of every one of its members.” “Codependence” is a beautiful word that could mean mutual support but instead means mutual harm. We all depend on various chemicals to survive, but “chemical dependency” is a euphemism for drug addiction. “Depend” is an adult diaper brand that provides an essential product but also reinforces the connections between dependence, weakness, and public shame. The conservative coinage “culture of dependency” evokes not a community of care but racist stereotypes of deadbeat dads and welfare queens. I live in a country where the idea that children would get a free school lunch is untenable to many; when kids can’t pay, cafeteria workers are instructed to dump their lunch in the trash rather than feed them, and politicians have proposed the plan of making poor children do janitorial work to earn their food. In America, even kindergarteners are taught to be ashamed of depending on others for their sandwiches and milk.
Of course, kids are usually allowed to do a fair amount of leaning at home. But for adults, romantic partnership can sometimes seem like the only socially sanctioned reprieve from the demand to self-rely, aside perhaps from the military or team sports. Emotional and material dependence within couples is both accepted and expected, and even though in practice romantic love is not necessarily a license to lean, it is commonly understood that marriage, in the words of the Book of Common Prayer, “was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other.”
No wonder I’ve spent so much of my life leaning on the man I was sleeping with, or sleeping with the man I was leaning on. No wonder so many people I know try to save all their leaning for their romantic partner.
I learned to practice mutual, broadly distributed leaning: to depend on care that was neither compulsory nor conditional, and on lavish, unrationed, unanticipated kindness.
The flipside of the love-and-marriage exception is that other kinds of relationships of dependence are subject to constant criticism and condescension. A few years ago, when I was rearranging my life to care for a friend with cancer, an acquaintance of ours took me to task, telling me that certain kinds of care should be provided only by romantic partners, not friends. He may have been trying to protect me, but in doing so he was enforcing a norm, and I didn’t see why my friend should be deprived of care or I should be protected from the hard parts of love just because both of us happened to be single. Meanwhile another friend who wants to be a mother has told me that she’s not sure she can have kids without a partner, because when she was growing up she absorbed the prevailing attitude that unwed parents had made irresponsible choices and were not entitled to approval and support. Even though she no longer believes this, she can’t quite shake the shame, and as a brown woman with an immigrant family background, she knows she would be judged especially harshly if she ever needed help—and of course she would need help; all parents need help.
The obstacles to shameless leaning are all around us, and they are also inside us. Insofar as leaning in America has often been characterized as feminine or foreign, and independence has been declared to be a prerequisite for citizenship and dignity, these obstacles might even constitute us. Dependence does not have the same social meaning for everyone, and its weight is not equally borne. Even when it is necessary, it can be an unaffordable privilege or an unsustainable loss of power. Leaning, or being leaned on, can make one feel luscious, melting, known, held, solid, suspended, steely, light. It can also make one feel used, worn out, weak, diminished, infantilized, guarded, sick, spent. Leaning can be love. It is also an improvisation and a risk.
Long ago, in a season of romantic despair, I wrote a melodramatic email to two old friends asking for empathy. One thanked me for reaching out and sent love, the other rebuked me for my emotional excess and cut off contact; both were sure they’d acted appropriately, and perhaps they both were right. In one of my friendships, an immense financial gift that I thought might wreck us with the weight of obligation instead wove us together like a heartfelt vow, while in another friendship, a period of temporary financial dependence coincided with unprecedentedly bitter fights and recriminations. There have been times in caregiving situations when I’ve felt the kind of profound physical connection with a friend that one might have with a longtime lover: the ability to read someone’s face and body and to know the subtle signs, imperceptible to others, that they are tired, overwhelmed, in pain, at peace. And there have been times when the intimacy of giving and receiving care was so intense, the fear of loss and self-loss so great, that it required carefully sustained mutual resentment and exasperation.
Some of the difficulty of dependence is inevitable, and it may be indistinguishable from the difficulty of intimacy itself. But some of it is exacerbated by the awkwardness of leaning in unscripted and uncoupled configurations. And a lot of the time all leaning seems unnecessarily hard: as if we are far too prone to punish ourselves and others for needing something we can’t exist without.
It doesn’t help that the American canon celebrating self-reliance is vast, encompassing the Declaration of Independence, Emerson, Didion, perennial bestseller Ayn Rand, most noirs, most Westerns, and a large percentage of congressional legislation. Popular celebrations of adult dependence, if you leave out romantic dependence, are harder to find, and they often portray it as a pre or post-couplehood phase (e.g., Friends or Golden Girls). For a full-fledged paean to leaning there is mainly just Bill Withers, whose anthem “Lean on Me” was inspired by the West Virginia coal-mining town that raised him.
I’ll never stop singing along with Bill Withers. I believe we all need somebody to lean on. But sometimes it seems like there are two American creeds, self-reliance and marriage, and neither of them is mine.
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Excerpted from HARD TO LOVE: Essays and Confessions by Briallen Hopper with permission from Bloomsbury Publishing. © Briallen Hopper, 2019.