What I Mean by “Self-Reliance”


Photo via Christopher Porter

We have reached a point in America where all you need is money. If you have money, every other need will be supplied. No good or service can’t be bought. Need your oil changed? You can pay someone to do it. Need to have your meals prepared? You can pay someone to do it. Need someone to talk to, someone to keep you distracted from all the things you’re trying not to think about? There is no shortage of people willing to do that for a price.

The consumer economy has, for all intents and purposes, become a total system. From cradle to grave, every aspect of human life has become commoditized. Every task an individual might once have performed for himself has become a service we pay for.

This context is important for understanding what I mean when I write about “self-reliance.” The term “self-reliance,” at least in the way I use it, encompasses two concepts. First, it means living with awareness that the consumer economy seeks to reduce people to little more than conduits through which money flows. Second, it means seeking to learn the skills, attitudes, and habits required to be more than that.

Of course, there are many good things about the consumer economy. It has made necessary goods more accessible to the poor, for example. The technology that has gone hand in hand with the development of the consumer economy has made this blog possible.

The goods of a consumer economy are often real blessings, but in our situation, the consumer economy has become more than just the process of buying and selling. It has become a totalizing ideology, a set of assumptions people carry with them and that are difficult for most people to articulate, let alone question.

The consumer economy has become totalizing by invading every aspect of life. Consumerism and its assumptions surround us from an early age. Before we are able to discern what the best human life is, we have been taught by ten thousand commercials that the best life is one with consumption at its center.

Self-reliant living means not living as we have been taught. It means determining for ourselves what ought to be at the center of our lives. It means stepping away from the propaganda we’ve imbibed to look critically at what our hearts most long for and setting our minds and hands to the work of creating those things.

The system thrives when we are distracted and helpless. That is why self-reliant living means turning off distractions and becoming less helpless. People today lack the skills necessary to support themselves outside of the complex economic system to which they are accustomed. Most can’t grow anything, fix anything, or learn anything on their own. Most would be surprised to imagine that it is even possible to do many things for oneself outside of the commercial system we inhabit.

I am not saying everyone needs to live a life of a hermit, growing all his own food and making furniture out of twigs. I am saying that the more skills we allow to atrophy because we depend on the system of goods and services that surrounds us, the less substantial we become. The ideal member of a consumer economy is one who is unable to do anything but buy, an empty vessel through which money flows.

By learning the necessary skills to care for oneself and one’s family, even to a small degree, one grows more substantial. Knowing how to support ourselves outside the consumer economy allows freedom. These skills set us free to decide the direction of our lives more fully. Our anxiety goes down as we recognize we are less dependent on a faceless, indifferent system to provide for our every need.

That’s why increasing our self-reliance feels good. When we realize we have been taught we need the system much more than we actually do, some kind of inner door opens and the light comes in. The problem is that without that light, it’s hard to see why increasing self-reliance is important. But I suspect you feel the need to do it. Go ahead, take a step in that direction. Even if, at first, it’s a step into the dark.

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