HS #71 2021.6.10
Pros and Cons of Self-Reliance
Nine score years ago Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote his American-spirited essay “Self-Reliance.” His thoughts echoed those of his soulmate, Henry David Thoreau who went off to Waldon Pond to live it out.
Self-reliance was brought to mind recently when riding in an elevator. Pushing the “2nd floor” button brought back a memory of early childhood. As a young child riding the elevator in the Golds Department Store in Lincoln Nebraska, a lady sitting in the corner shut the steal gate door and pushed the button to the requested floor.
Remember others who helped us out? Going to the filling station meant a young man pumping the gas and washing the windows. Dad was appreciative of those who removed all the bugs without leaving a streak. Dairymen brought our weekly milk and eggs.
Banking became largely self-sufficient with the addition of ATM machines. Grocery stores followed suit with self-check-out lanes. When is the last time that you called a travel agent to buy your plane ticket for a trip? I stopped going to the barber years ago – just as easy to shave my own head. Recent TV ads encourage even men with hair to do their own grooming.
Higher education has long lauded the goal of developing “lifelong learners,” but it is only the last generation or so that has fully embraced that notion. I recently asked a college coed her plans for the summer. She had just bought an old school bus and was planning to refit it into a camper. How? YouTube. Everything you want to know is on YouTube. Increasingly we rely on ourselves – with the help of YouTube or Seri - for the answers.
But Thoreau and Emerson were envisioning something deeper than self-reliance in the mundane affairs of life. The reason for self-reliance is to keep oneself uncorrupted from the depravities of society. Although Thoreau lived it, Emerson was pithier in stating their shared realization that “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members” and “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.” Once when I was feeling pressed to conform, I made a shirt with those two quotes. Wearing it was my silent rebellion against the system.
That was tame compared to one of my heroes, the mathematician-philosopher Bertrand Russell who was imprisoned at age 89 for his anti-nuke protests. Although an atheist, Russell lived his life according to a Bible verse he found highlighted in his grandmother’s Bible, Exodus 23:2: “Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil.”
Or consider Russell’s kindred spirit who hailed from Hope College. A. J. Muste, who also spent time in jail at age 74 for climbing over a 5 ft fence into a missile construction site, was once asked by a reporter, “Do you really think that you are going to change the policies of this country be standing out here alone at night in front of the White House with a candle?” Muste replied, “Oh, I don’t do this to change the country. I do this so the country won’t change me.”
All of these were self-reliant. They had their own moral compass and lived accordingly. However, did any of these visionaries of independent thought see the downside?
Reliance on others instills a sense of humility, an appreciation of community and a deference to those with knowledge and authority. In contrast, self-sufficiency facilitates a disdain towards authority which started with The Enlightenment.
Just one example. For the first time since polls were taken, less than half of Americans attend/belong to a church. Sunday morning sermons, at the very least, provide a stabilizing influence in society by being mortar which holds individual bricks together, building a common structure. Even if the sermon is dissected on the way home, at least all are pondering the same ideas.
Is there an Aristotelean Golden Mean which melds rugged individualism with a respect for the views of others? Perhaps the proper balance between self-reliance and blind submission was best articulated by one whose life overlapped with all of those above: Rudyard Kipling. In his inspiring poem “If” (which every teenager should read), he sages invaluable wisdom:
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too.
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you, if all men count with you, but none too much –
Yours is the earth and everything that’s in it, And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son.