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During an interview I recently watched on TV, a service station attendant was asked what he thought should be done about high gasoline prices. “I think we should drill Alaska,” he said. “That way we can be self-dependent.”

Self-dependent instead of the expected self-sufficient puzzled me. Self-sufficiency provides for one’s own needs. Self-dependency relies on one’s own resources—an impossibility, for in ourselves we lack resources. Our resources are in the Creation and each other; and both originate in the Creator’s grace.

One of the Creator’s graces is mutual dependence. Twenty years ago, I published a small journal detailing a year’s work—my teaching, writing, gardening, and woodcutting. In it, I rejoiced in my strength and ability to work; but looking back at that year, I am more impressed with how often I collaborated with friends and neighbors, how often our work was social, how often labor and care passed back and forth to meet each others’ needs. Choosing interdependence, we made a community. Beyond the bounds of our friendships, however, we discovered that helping others could be ambiguous and troubling. A brief account from a church project shows what I mean.

My wife and I owned a 35-acre woodlot with two other families, and logging the land had left us with more tops than we could use. Rather than waste the wood, we gave about 50 cords to our church to distribute that winter. One cold afternoon, I delivered a cord to a widow way up in the hills. It was an effort to keep her from coming out to help unload. When I finished, she had coffee waiting. As we drank coffee and talked, I casually asked why she hadn’t called for help sooner, before she had totally run out of wood. “Oh,” she said, “I thought someone might need it more, and I didn’t want to take theirs.”

Driving home, feeling better about myself than I should have, I was struck by the contrast between the visit I had just made and an earlier one. Then I had taken wood to a retired railroad worker, a slovenly know-it-all who explained at great length as I stacked his wood that all his problems were the fault of the government and that he had never gotten from life what he deserved. I figured he was half-right and should have been glad for the break, but that was my problem.

And that is the difficulty. Whether we give or receive, we feel conflicted. When we receive, we want to feel deserving. When we give, we want to give as gods. But we are neither deserving nor godlike. We are from our births recipients of grace, created beings made to live in the exchanges of mutual dependence. We choose whether to deny the nature of the world and live selfishly or yield ourselves and live joyously as bearers of the Creator's grace.
John Leax's latest book is Grace is Where I Live: The Landscape of Faith & Writing, WordFarm, 2004.