Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The myth of self-sufficiency.

I think in American culture we spend a lot of time talking about being self-sufficient, self-reliant, independent.

After all, this is the "home of the free," is it not?  What's more free than absolute self-sufficiency?

Since childhood, we are taught that the emphasis is on learning to "grow up," but what does it mean to be a grown-up?  I think often being a grown-up is defined as being able to do things on your own.  Maybe that definition is flawed.

I'm not saying we should stop encouraging kids to do things on their own.  It's good to be able to tie your own shoes, brush your own teeth, pick your own outfits, or earn your own paychecks.

But maybe being "on your own" shouldn't be our emphasis.  We hurry up to grow up, and when we finally get there, we expect to be able to do everything ourselves.  And in my experience, that's simply not the case.  I think self-sufficiency, not in any specific sense, but as a general philosophy, is a heck of a myth.

Who am I?  I am a son, a brother, an uncle, a friend, a student, and an enthusiastic audience for good film and good music.  I suppose I am a lot of things.  Most importantly, I am a disciple of Christ.  None of these things I use to describe myself are possible independently.  I cannot fill any of these roles self-sufficiently.

I cannot be a son, brother, or uncle, unless I have parents, siblings, and nephews or nieces.  I cannot be a friend without friends or a student without teachers.  I cannot be an audience without artists.  And of course, I cannot be a disciple without a Master.  It seems that, in a way, I cannot be anything without my relationships with others.  They define me; they create me.

There is something to be said for financial self-reliance.  It is honorable to try to stay out of debt, to try to provide for yourself.  I try to do that.  I hate to borrow.  But when we take this idea of self-reliance too far, I think it can be psychologically damaging.

Emotional self-reliance?  What is that?  When a romantic relationship ends, for example, it's easy to say, "I need to work on my emotional self-reliance and learn to be happy on my own."  But what do we really mean when we say that?  Surely we don't want to be alone.  Is there such a thing as full, complete happiness in isolation?  Maybe we are supposed to be lonely when we're alone, so that we can better appreciate the sublime happiness that comes from being with another human being.  We are surrounded by people in this world; we were made to build connections with each other.  When we don't, we're not being bravely independent - we're being stubbornly self-limiting.  In a way, there is no such thing as emotional independence, for there are some emotions that literally cannot exist until you force yourself to connect with someone else.

Next, let me address what I think is an obvious lie:  "spiritual self-reliance."  I do not believe it exists.

Now, don't get me wrong - I do believe in what the scriptures call "works."  I do believe there are things we ought to do and there is effort we ought to spend if we want to achieve happiness and eventual salvation.  But that does not mean we are spiritually self-reliant.  It just means we are working.

Spiritually speaking, I am wholly dependent on my Savior for all things.  All strength and power, all light and truth, comes from Him.  When the scriptures speak of "grace," they are talking about an empowering gift from the Heavens, a gift that turns sinners into saints.  Certainly it requires spiritual effort to show God we are willing to accept His grace, and it requires spiritual perseverance to keep that grace working in our lives, but in the end, it is still grace - it is still a gift that no measure of supposed self-reliance could achieve without Divine help.

I realize many of my readers are not Christian, not religious, or not even spiritually-minded.  I hope my thoughts provide something useful anyhow.  Regardless of whether we believe in a Supreme Being, I think it's important to remember that we are not alone in the world.  If our only companions in this Universe are flawed mortals, they are companions nonetheless - and we are defined by them.

Indeed, as the English poet once wrote:  "no man is an island."  And for that, I am glad.
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