Most of my friends in the environmental community and the Transition movement are big fans of the value of interdependence. They’d surely agree with President Obama when he recently said, “if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own…The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.”
Self-reliance, by contrast, seems more popular with the Chamber of Commerce types who have so vehemently disagreed with Obama, answering back that success comes from hard work and smarts. These conservatives take their cue from another president, Ronald Reagan: “A troubled and afflicted mankind looks to us, pleading for us to keep our rendezvous with destiny; that we will uphold the principles of self-reliance, self-discipline, morality, and — above all — responsible liberty for every individual that we will become that shining city on a hill.”
But what I’m seeing these days, and what seems to work for me and my wife Lindsay as we take on more resilience projects such as brewing our own beer, making our own cheese from raw milk or cutting our clothing budget through thrifting, is that becoming more self-reliant is a powerful motivation for us to live more simply and with less damage to the earth.
This realization led me to the collection of quotes on self-reliance at Goodreads. Many of their literary bon mots speak to our experience now in swimming against the tide of mainstream society and trying to become more resilient. Perhaps they’ll speak to yours too?
As we disengage from the corporate-dominated consumer economy in more and more ways, we start to realize that the benefits of DIY are as much emotional as they are financial or moral.
“The proverb warns that, ‘You should not bite the hand that feeds you.’ But maybe you should, if it prevents you from feeding yourself,” as Hungarian-born psychiatrist Thomas Stephen Szasz says.
Modern Americans are perhaps the least self-reliant and most other-reliant people ever in the history of humanity.
That might be OK if we were reliant on our friends, family and neighbors for food, clothing and companionship. But sadly most of us are really just dependent on big corporations and workers across the globe to grow our food, make our stuff and inform and entertain us.
So to regain some of our lost mastery, we’d do well to follow the classic, Matrix-y advice of Bob Marley: “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery. None but ourselves can free our minds.”
And once you get into Transition a bit — for example, you install a composting toilet or give up air travel to cut your carbon emissions — you’re sure to get lots of push back from friends and family who want to pull you back into the consumerist fold.
It’s easy to get frustrated by the pressure to conform and all too tempting perhaps to quote from Lauren Oliver’s novel Delirium: “I’d rather die my way than live yours.”
It may be easier to live a resilient life if you quit your cubicle job, tell your family you’ve joined a strict sustainability cult and then retreat from the big city to a forgotten corner of rural America. If you can do that and still somehow make a living, you can enjoy some quality time with Number One. “I care for myself,” wrote Charlotte Bronte in Jane Eyre. “The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.”
After all, as Sarah Dessen wrote in her novel Lock and Key, “Only a weak person needed someone else around all the time.”
There have been times when I’ve wanted to become a Buddhist monk or retreat to a solitary cave for a life of meditation. These days, getting into local food and gardening, I certainly feel the pull of farm living from time to time. But as I learn more about how poor quality or downright dangerous nearly every aspect of mainstream modern culture is to the physical, mental and moral health of humans, I wonder more and more if the many compromises required to pay the mortgage and remain in town are worth the trouble.
Yet somehow, I always decide to stick around, to keep my job as a solar power developer, to be grateful that my neighbors elected me to my local city council and to recommit myself to helping make my whole community, not just my own family, more resilient. It’s the very challenge offered by the Guru of Self-reliance himself, Ralph Waldo Emerson, that I can’t resist:
It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.
I’m sure it’s a cop-out to say that in the end, there’s no real conflict between self-reliance and community, between thinking for yourself and living for others, between looking inside and seeing outside.
On the one hand, you’re the person you know and love the best. “Don’t compromise yourself. You’re all you’ve got,” as Janis Joplin is supposed to have said. Which is just as well, because as Emerson put it, “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.” And that peace is in limitless supply, according to Marcus Aurelius: “For it is in your power to retire into yourself whenever you choose.”
On the other hand, it’s an ironic benefit that liberating yourself from public opinion may actually become more popular, at least if you believe the Tao Te Ching: “When you are content to be simply yourself and don’t compare or compete, everyone will respect you.”
I had an easy life for many years letting big corporations do nearly everything for me, heating up mac and cheese in the microwave, filling out my fall wardrobe from Brooks Brothers. But I was unfulfilled and never knew why. Now, I work a lot harder at everyday tasks. A waste of time? When I’m in a good mood, it feels more like growing up. “It is folly for a man to pray to the gods for that which he has the power to obtain by himself,” said Epicurus.
But other days I feel the frustrations expressed so well by the maddening Flannery O’Connor in Wise Blood: “I preach there are all kinds of truth, your truth and somebody else’s, but behind all of them, there’s only one truth and that is that there is no truth… No truth behind all truths is what I and this church preach! Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it. Where is there a place for you to be? No place… In yourself right now is all the place you’ve got.”
If you believe the highly quotable but never cliché Khalil Gibran, the middle way between self-reliance and connection must be the most beautiful possible path:
You were born together, and together you shall be for evermore…But let there be spaces in your togetherness…Love one another, but make not a bond of love. Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls. Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup. Give one another of your bread but eat not of the same loaf. Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.
– Erik Curren, Transition Voice