Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Self Reliance Myth

Okay, so it’s been a while since my last post. My blog hasn’t gone less-active. I’ve had some troubles at work that have taken all of my mental willpower (such as it is), so my weekends have revolved around empting my head as much as possible, rather than any sort of deep thinking.


One of the greatest ironies of the so called Christian Right has to be the adoption by some Christians of the callous attitudes of the right wing towards the poor. Caring for the poor is one of the fundamental responsibilities of the followers of Christ (Matt 25:34-46), and the idea that the behavior of the poor (ie their “refusal” to work) somehow relieves the rest of us of our responsibility to extend our hand to them is specifically condemned in the Book of Mormon (Mosiah 4:17-18.) The idea that poverty is a personal failing is a tool that the “haves” use to justify their unwillingness to help the “have nots”. After all, if it’s their own fault they’re in the mess they’re in then I don’t have to do anything to help get them out. Can you image going before the Judgment Seat knowing full well the sins you have committed, knowing that you cannot pay for them yourself and having Christ say “You got yourself into this mess, you get yourself out of it” (Matt 7:2)? Wasn’t that the whole point of the atonement? For Christ to help us out of our self-created messes?

If you sat though some of the Sunday School lessons that I have you could easily be forgiven for thinking that self reliance is both the penultimate achievement of any individual, and that every person born is instantly fully capable of complete self reliance. Thus anyone not fully self reliant from the get-go is clearly somehow less worthy or undeserving; that not being totally self reliant is a grievous sin. Both of these ideas are false. Self reliance is a necessary prerequisite for the service of others, not a final condition; if we are not strong enough to carry our own burdens we can’t carry any of the burdens of others. Nor is everyone equally capable in all things – can the mentally slow child of a drug addicted 14-year-old single mother really be expected to pick themselves up by their own boots straps on the day they turn 18? Does that person, turning 18, atomically learn that hard work will bring rewards and knocking off liquor stores won’t, especially when all they’ve ever seen their entire life is people sitting around complaining, committing petty crimes and going in and out of jail? Who would teach a child like that how to work, or even that work has rewards?

The fact of the matter is that none of us is truly self reliant in the sense of not being dependant on others. How many people do you know that grow all of their own food, make all of their own clothes from cotton they picked and sheep they raised, who drive cars they built from ore they mined on roads they paved, who, when they’re sick, perform open heart surgery on themselves? Our society is one of specialization and we are better for it. I can trade my skill as a carpenter for money which I then trade with you for your skill as a surgeon. This means that my self reliance takes on another form. Self reliance in a modern society is the capacity to contribute to that society in a way that can be traded for the necessities of life.

If I become “successful” in this society it is easy to claim that I am self made. That my successes are as the result of my own hard work, and if others work hard like me they will be successful too. Such an attitude takes for granted all of the hard work by others that goes into making an individual successful. Things such as good schooling, a stable home life, proper nutrition, health and access to good healthcare, being taught the value of delayed gratification, student loans, and safe neighborhoods, are all multipliers of individual handwork. Neglect, abuse, indifference, racism, bigotry, sexism, and ignorance all work to camouflage the tools required for success in a society such as ours. Responsibly and hard work are skills, and their use requires practice and a belief that eventually they will bring reward. Practice and belief are not inherited, or in-born, they are learned and thus require a teacher.

As a society and as individuals we have a responsibility clearly laid out to those who do not yet contribute to society in a meaningful way. Each of us should contribute to society to the maximum amount possible, regardless of what anyone else is doing. It is clearly frustrating when you feel like you are contributing more than your fair share, or that others are living off of your hard work. Clearly those in need of assistance have a responsibly to do what they know how to do to mitigate their condition. However, one individual’s neglect of their responsibilities is no excuse for neglecting our own.

As a society we have the responsibility to be our brother’s keeper. We can provide good education in safe schools for children and access to educational opportunities for adults. We can work to understand the complex causes of poverty and crime (I’ll give you a hint: saying, “It’s just because they’re lazy” doesn’t cut it). We can promote positive role-models. We can help strengthen families by providing social programs that encourage rather than discourage stable parenting partnerships. We can provide subsidized daycare so a single mother doesn’t have to work a second job to pay for daycare while she works the first. We can provide access to high quality health care for free so jobs are not lost due to illness. We can provide surrogate parents for children whose own parents are physically, mentally or emotionally absent. We can communicate to others that they are valuable and capable. All of these things require society to work together help those who struggle.

As individuals we also have responsibilities. First we need to be sure that we can carry our own burdens. But if we stop there we have only achieved selfish indulgence. We can reach out to others, not judge, and work to uplift. We can educate ourselves on the struggles of others and learn to view the world though their eyes. We can be more patient, and more helpful. We can understand how to put our own unique skill set at the service of others. We can reach out beyond our class, race, and religious comfort zones. We cannot blame the victim for their victimization, or the poor for their poverty. We cannot give into despair or cynicism. We cannot wait for others to act. If there is a problem in the world, and poverty is assuredly a problem, our response should be, “What can I do?” and not “What should they do?”

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