Being self-reliant is a core part of the American myth. We idolize people who distinguish themselves as individuals, especially if they have had to conquer some sort of challenge in order to rise above the ranks. We tell ourselves, even as activists and feminists, that being self-sufficient is something you should strive for. “You don’t need anyone else,” we tell each other; tell ourselves. I’m not immune to that. I would prefer to be able to do everything myself.
But self-reliance is bullshit.
It’s a myth that is beloved equally by conservative businessmen and feminist activists. We all want to feel like we can achieve anything on our own, that we never need to seek outside ourselves for validation, for purpose, for productivity. But just like the dream of minimalism, the dream of self-sufficiency is achievable—or indeed desirable—for only a small subset of people for whom capitalism works well. It focuses on the individual, and the individuals needs and wants, rather than the good of the community or the world.
In search of self-reliance, we dedicate ourselves to work. Labor is the recipe and also the final product of self-reliance. The ways in which this tie in to capitalism and the American work-ethic are complicated and probably better summarized by someone else. But I will say this: when you value someone based on their ability to be self-sufficient, you are basing their value on their ability to cut themselves off from ties to others. You prioritize their ability to work alone, since self-sufficiency requires a great deal of labor. Unnecessary labor, too, since if we’re being honest, none of us are good at everything or even most things. It takes me longer to make pasta then it takes an actual chef to do so. We have enough man hours to meet all of society’s needs, so now capitalism must diversify. It must invent reasons why we still need to work, and work more.
Focusing on the individual often feels good. I want to be told I have everything that I need within myself. Our culture revolves around the heroic individual, whether it’s Luke Skywalker or Steve Jobs. But those people were not alone. They, and every other famous person you can think of, were supported by networks of other people, without which they would not have achieved much of anything. How much did those other people gain by supporting this single individual? Were they recognized? Did they feel fulfilled?
The more we focus on ourselves as a culture, the more we lose sight of problems we are unable to impact as individuals - global warming, for instance. We risk the community bonds that compel us to act for the greater good.
A quick disclaimer: I believe it is still valuable to practice self-reliance emotionally. That is to say, you should not depend on any specific person for emotional stability or fulfillment. However, getting that emotional fufillment from bonds with multiple people, with your community, is a more positive situation that trying to produce emotional stimuli and response all within your own head.
If we want to make the world a better place, we need to start looking outward. How do my actions affect my community? Am I a good partner, friend, or family member? Rather than “am I good at my job,” ask, “does my work have a good impact on the world?” We should provide for each other. No one should suffer either from lack of self-reliance (often due to health or economic barriers beyond their control) or an excess of it. It is our bonds with one another that make us human.