In yourself right now is the only place you’ve got

row boat

Living on one’s own. Photo: Alkan de Beaumont Chaglar/flickr.

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?

Co-dependence is not interdependence

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.”

Alone in a crowd

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.

The kingdom of God is within

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

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  1. says

    “Co-dependence is not interdependence” – yes absolutely! Often I think freeing ourselves from the gravity pull of inertia is the most difficult part. Once we get that momentum towards interdependence going we begin to trundle along the track (some mixed metaphors in there I think!).

    • says

      When it comes to metaphors, I say mix away…Anyway, that pull of inertia is tough, isn’t it? It’s helpful to me that my wife and I support each other. I also get energy from folks on Transition Voice!

  2. Auntiegrav says

    I’ll just throw in a couple of my favorites.
    “There is no ‘meat’ in ‘TEAM’ without ‘me'” – Me.
    “All things in moderation, including moderation.”- Pearl S. Buck, “The Good Earth”
    “The opposite of consumption is not frugality. It is generosity.” Raj Patel
    When people think of Empires that have failed, the first one that usually comes to mind is the Roman Empire, and that is what we compare modern civilization to as we see the Peak Everything moment in politics. I don’t remember where I saw it first, but it stuck when something I read compared the U.S. to the Spanish Empire instead. Spain’s easy gold from the New World is comparable to the use of petroleum by the U.S. The result, as you point out, is that Americans are completely dependent upon cheap energy (especially oil) to do the things of Life for them, as the Spanish were dependent on hired labor to perform their everyday tasks and purchased goods from other countries while they built castles and sailing ships for conquest and pleasure. When the gold ran out (or became hard to get because of the extermination of their sources through diseases), Spain fell into the stone ages for their lack of personal living skills. The interdependence of our System of systems works for now because of those who built it, not because of those who consume its benefits, and they built it during times of cheap oil FOR times of cheap oil and convenience. It ain’t called “black gold” for nothin’.

    • says

      Pearl Buck is great. I also love your comparison with the Spanish Empire. I don’t know why that never occurred to me before, but it makes perfect sense to compare America today with Spain at the end of its golden age. Maybe more so than the Romans or even the British, our empire is really about how one rich resource (gold/oil) has made ordinary citizens as lazy and dependent as the most fawning nobleman at court. And we’re all also so vulnerable to collapse when that resource starts to run low and get expensive.

  3. says

    This is an interesting conundrum–and one which has a certain sort of cognitive dissonance associated with it. Transition people–of all people–should understand the absolutely necessity and wisdom of self-sufficiency. Self-sufficiency is, after all, what the homesteading movement is founded on. And, the homesteading movement has been on the front lines of the Transition movement. I think that some Transition people are merely conceptualizing Transition–in their heads–whereas the homestead people are actually Transitioning. =) Back to the Land, Back to Family and Friends, Back to Nature, Back to Simplicity.

    • says

      You’re so right about conceptualizing versus actually doing Transition. And I think when we actually do it and start declaring our independence from corporations and machines, we may also have the chance to realize how interconnected we really are with what’s really important — sun and rain and dirt and carrots and cows and even microbes. There’s a kind of pride in DIY that also fosters a deep humility about human limits and a respect for the natural world, a kind of self-respect under God/Nature that seems mature and healthy to me.

      • Auntiegrav says

        Yes, but romanticism aside, rather than looking backward at past lower levels of extraction, we should heed advanced philosophical ideas such as I quote Raj Patel above: Caring for the land doesn’t mean just taking less from it, nor living a simpler life, but being generous to the land and improving its stability and condition (permaculture is one example) so that our future selves (aren’t that what our children are?) may continue indefinitely to do the same. The common perceptions floating around us typically just talk about being less consumptive, not generous; and they leave the solution to the longevity problems to God or The Invisible Hand. If we are to prove out the concept of an Intentional species, we must follow through the complete logical equation of nature: that a species must give more than it takes or it will go extinct. The mosquito feeds the trout. The trout feeds the bear. The bear spreads raspberry seeds. We must find all of the possible usefulness that we can contribute as a species and do what we know we must do or our claims to intelligence are simply false bravado just because we killed the competition (any non-human species we encountered), rather than cooperating with them in some way (the tiger cooperates with its prey by natural default: we override any natural systems and call it “progress” because we make more humans than we need).

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