Self-reliance – it’s a big topic here on Just Plain Living – but it’s probably the most misunderstood part. You are probably quite clear on what sustainable means when you see my tagline – sustainable, self-reliant living – but self-reliance … that’s a different matter.
There is a huge myth out there about self-reliance. Far too many people believe that it means you exist only on what your two hands can grow or create, that it means living without other people, and that you basically have to do All The Things in order to be self-reliant.
Can we bust that myth out of the water? Because too many of my people are beating themselves up because they can’t do that.
Why is Self-Reliance Important?
First, I want you to take a moment and consider what ‘self-reliant’ means to you. What images does that phrase conjure up in your mind?
You are probably seeing someone who lives on their own terms, with an independent attitude and a determination to take care of their own needs.
The person you envision may have a food garden and might raise animals for meat, eggs and milk. Perhaps they preserve their food at home, harvest the sun and wind for electricity. Your vision of a self-reliant person may include a rural lifestyle or at least a simple one and perhaps even a dwelling built by hand.
Self-reliance will look different depending on the stage of your life, where you live and your health, but it can include all of these things.
It could also include partnering with an established farm to buy – and preserve – unsold garden produce in bulk, buying into a herdshare so that you share a goat or cow with other urban dwellers, hiring local carpenters to build an eco-friendly home, and buying into a herd share program for fresh milk.
It might include campaigning to bring solar panels, back yard gardens and chickens into your suburb, working with your local government to turn empty lots into community gardens, or buying into Community Supported Agriculture so that you help a small farmer keep operating.
When you make lifestyle choices that remove your dependence on faceless corporations, no matter where you start, you are increasing your self-reliance. Those who do this tend to be drawn to a more simple and rural life since city life is often not flexible enough for the changes they want to make.
Don’t despair, though, city folks – self-reliance doesn’t actually require a back forty and livestock.
First and foremost, it’s an attitude, and it’s one that will serve you well no matter the circumstances in which you find yourself. A person in a wheelchair, or with health problems, a stay-at-home parent with multiple young children, or someone with a disabled dependent – self-reliance will look different in each and every case. (I have written before on the myth of Doing It All, and you might want to read that.)
What is the basis for this attraction to a self-reliant life, and why is self-reliance so important?
My grandfather was born in 1918, and I don’t remember ever hearing about him having a job, at least not once he was out of his teens. What I did hear were stories of the pigs they slaughtered in the early winter, and the hay that had to be cut to feed the animals. My grandfather grew the hay that fed the cows, milked the cows and brought the milk in to Grandma to make cheese and butter, with the whey going back to the pigs. They also had a pressure canner that they used to preserve the meat! They weren’t unusual in all of this, since most of their neighbours lived similar lives.
The plain truth is that we have not always been so dependent upon technology and there has never been a time when so many have lived in huge cities. Our ancestors – like my grandfather – weren’t always tied to jobs that paid for technology and possessions that created even more dependence, and certainly debt has never been as prevalent or considered as normal as it is today.
Imagine it – there was a time when we didn’t all work hard to pay for things we didn’t need to impress people we didn’t like, with money that we didn’t have.
There was a time when the majority of our ancestors created things with their own hands, for themselves and for those around them. Of course, there have always been things we need from other people, and certain segments of the population have been more dependent than others. Civilized people take responsibility for those who cannot care for themselves, after all.
But never before have we had entire cities full of people who clock in their hours at work, come home and then sit in front of mass entertainment while eating prepackaged and sometimes precooked food.
We were made for better than this!
We are so accustomed to the comforts of “I cannot”, “I do not want to” and “it is too difficult” that we forget to realize when we stop doing things for ourselves and expect others to dance around us, we are not achieving greatness. We have made ourselves weak. ― Pandora Poikilos
Self-reliance is a movement and idea that reminds us that we’re more than just dependent drones clocking in our hours. It reminds us that there is more to life than the rat race.
It reminds us that we can still take back that control.
So Who Is Really Controlling Your Life?
Hi. My name is Marie and I’m a trekkie. I was a trekkie before it was cool.
Jokes aside, Star Trek is probably my favourite television show of all time. When we first got Netflix and I realized it was there, I spent two weeks binge-watching my first childhood crush and loving every campy, over-acted minute of it.
I’m not talking about Star Trek: The Next Generation or (shudder) Deep Space Nine or Voyager. I’m certainly not talking about the reboot of the franchise, which keeps making me yell at the television screen, or movies that are set in an alternative timeline.
No, to me, Star Trek means The Original Series, the old school Star Trek, the real Star Trek.
Hey, I’m told that real Scotch drinkers prefer single malt, and real whiskey drinkers prefer bourbon, so those who know best prefer things closest to the sources. Real Star Trek fans prefer the original series.
(Feel free to pelt me with tomatoes. It’s okay. I’ll still like you even if you want to boldly stay where no one has stayed before.)
So what does Star Trek: The Original Series have to do with self-reliance? Well, everything!
Even if you’re not a fan of the show, if you can’t handle the delightful campiness and over-acting, and even if you actively loathe it, then you still know who Captain James T. Kirk is. All the Star Trek captains were good, but none were as memorable as Captain Kirk.
You have to know about Kirk because his character has become part of the Western cultural consciousness. Even if you only know about him through parody, you still know about Captain Kirk.
Okay, you’re from Europe or Africa or Asia and you are completely baffled right now? Let me explain.
In the Star Trek story line, Earth became part of the United Federation of Planets in 2161 and later sent the starship Enterprise out on a five year mission to “explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilization and boldly go where no man has gone before!”
Yes, it’s sexist language, and a lot of that was dealt with in The Next Generation, but … well, The Original Series is sometimes shockingly sexist. It’s a great reminder of how far we’ve come.
At any rate, Captain James T. Kirk is the captain of the Enterprise. He has a duty to carry out his mission (explore new worlds, etc) and keep his crew safe.
If there was one thing I’d learned, it was that you were responsible for your own ship. You had to look after the engine and make sure the plane was in order and ready to be flown. You were in charge of plotting your course. When you were in the pilot’s seat, it was your hand on the throttle, no one else’s. If your oil ran out or you lost your engine or the engine caught fire and you had to crash, you were the one saving yourself. No one else could do it for you. ― Jennifer Niven
Captain Kirk is responsible. The buck stops with him.
He makes tough decisions and deals with the sometimes horrible consequences of these decisions.
He is largely independent because of the vast distances that separate him from his command.
James Kirk is, a word, self-reliant.
As we’ve already discussed, most of us live rather dependent lives. We’re the crew, and not even the bridge crew. Too many of us are the nameless redshirt who performs the work but gets little acknowledgement.
In fact, some of us have almost lost the ability to take control of our lives and destinies. We often trade independence for material comforts and possessions.
And while Captain Kirk had some basic rules that he had to follow, as we all must, he had plenty of latitude to stretch – or break – those rules to fit the situation.
How many of us are living our lives as a voyage of discovery, confidently making our own decisions and taking responsibility for our lives?
Or are we, instead, taking forced voyages of dependence and conformity?
So Just What IS Self-Reliance?
Well, let’s look at what’s going on right now. Even if you live in the country, you and those around you likely have a job of some sort. Five (and maybe six) days a week, you head to that job and put in eight, ten or even twelve hours of work.
Getting to that job almost always involves a commute and then there is another one at the end of the work day to get home.
Most people in our society either own a home and pay a mortgage and property taxes, or they live in a rented house or apartment and pay rent.
The average person here in North America has a car, and perhaps two. Here in rural Nova Scotia, it is difficult for anyone to get to work without a vehicle so a house with multiple adults is likely to have a vehicle for each. Owning even one car requires payment of the cost of the car, insurance, repairs and gasoline.
There are one hundred and sixty eight hours in a week.
At least forty hours every week are spent at work. If your commute is half an hour each way, there goes another five hours. Rural workers may have an hour to drive each way, and city dwellers may be stuck in traffic for up to two hours morning and night. So there go between five and twenty more hours.
Everyone has to sleep. The average adult sleeps nearly eight hours every night. So an additional forty hours are consumed by resting in order to be prepared for the next day … so you can go to work.
Then there are the routine tasks that are required to maintain the house and car or cars. There are commitments that involve others. Everyone eats, so that takes time. All of these “average” lifestyle activities quickly add up, so much so that anyone who lives an “average” lifestyle has less than two hours every day that they can call their own. Every other hour is spoken for, taken up by activities that support the lifestyle.
When you think about it, the average lifestyle is one of complete dependency.
We have to work because we have to pay for things that we really don’t own.
We have to work because we have to buy food that we don’t have time to produce.
We have to do things that we necessarily do not want to do because we are made to feel that doing those things is normal. We do things that we don’t want to do because we want to conform.
When I think back to my grandparents, an amazing and relatively recent example of self-reliance, it becomes clear that they didn’t do this alone. In a community of about fifty self-reliant families, most of their needs could be met through people they knew and could trust. While each farm could manage with little outside help, they knew the value of trusted, reliable neighbours. As a friend of mine from the Old Order Mennonite community often says “Your neighbours can live without you, but you can’t live without your neighbours.”
It is important to make mention of this. A self-reliant community or village – made up of responsible, self-reliant households that work together for the betterment of the community and care for those unable to care for themselves – is a powerful thing.
This is not what I mean by dependency, and going off into the woods to live as a lone wolf without other people is not self-reliance. It’s a great way to lose your sanity, your health, and possibly your life.
We are made as social creatures who need other humans, but the only way it works is if we are all operating at our finest, contributing to our best ability, and taking responsibility for our own lives and needs.
Self-reliance rejects the “average” lifestyle.
Self-reliance doesn’t conform simply for the sake of conforming.
Self-reliance isn’t influenced by what someone else says, even if they’re telling you that you must do this or that thing in order to be self-reliant.
Self-reliance is about living life on your own terms and taking responsibility for your own decisions, actions and choices.
It’s about living life as a producer – even of something small – and working together with other self-reliant producers.
It’s about owning your … as my Mennonite friend would say … crap. Own your crap. (*cough* *cough* It actually means ‘garbage’ and comes from the word chaff – if Old Order Mennonites think it’s a fine word, it’s good enough for me.) Take responsibility for whatever mess is in your life and deal with it instead of waiting for someone else to pick up and take over. Someone can pick up and take over, but you will lose a little bit of ‘you’ every time that happens.
Self-reliance is about independence and non-conformity.
Self-reliance is about freedom.
The Dependency Habit
So you’re realizing that, unlike Captain Kirk, you really are not the Captain of your own ship, and you’re wondering how that happened.
It is very easy in today’s culture to become completely dependent on other people – what they do for you, what they produce and even the decisions they make for you. It’s much easier to coast along, clocking in our hours and doing the work that we are told to do. And of course that means living where you are supposed to live, buying the vehicles you’re supposed to buy and doing all of the things that you’re supposed to be doing.
You have developed a habit of dependency.
Instead of taking ownership for your own actions, decisions and life, you push that responsibility on to others.
You have become passive.
You conform to behaviors you don’t really believe in so that your dependency remains stable. Your ability to be self-sufficient has been stunted, and you happily allow others do things for you that you darn well can – and should – be doing for yourself.
Instead of being an actively contributing member to a thriving self-reliant community, you have settled into ‘just doing my job’.
This is a bad head space for you to be in.
In short, the dependency habit makes you less of a person and prevents you from being everything you were truly meant to be. Harsh, but true.
Luckily, it’s a habit and all habits can be broken and replaced with healthy ones.
While I’m the last person to encourage a whiny “It’s not my fault!” there is some truth to the fact that it’s not completely your fault that you have a dependency habit.
Our culture, at least here in North America, is designed to make us all consumers of things and services that are absolutely not essential. We consume them because we are told that they are, in fact, essential.
This shampoo will make us beautiful and loved.
This disposable towel will make our lives easier and more comfortable.
Successful and beautiful people wouldn’t consider living without this gadget or cream or accessory.
In short, we’re lied to from birth.
Society indoctrinates us into becoming unthinking consumers of products that will actually do nothing to make us more beautiful, popular or successful. These products certainly won’t make our lives easier and more comfortable. And they very rarely solve any problems that we couldn’t have already solved without their help.
All they do is tie us down under mountains of debt and obligations that we feel we can’t walk away from. Why? Because if we don’t service the debt on these unnecessary products, we won’t be able to incur debt to buy more unnecessary products in the future.
So, what’s the answer?
It’s time to step off that consumer treadmill and break your dependency habit. That doesn’t mean that you don’t engage with others, sell and buy from them and even take advantage of those consumer goods when they are necessary.
But it does require that you stop and assess each one and how it affects your dependency and, most importantly, that you take responsibility.
Recently, on a local Facebook group, a woman asked about finding work for her boyfriend so that they could leave Western Canada and come home to the Maritimes. The wages he was looking for as a car detailer were ridiculously high by local standards. Most of the responses, though, were variations on ‘Come back and set up as a mobile detailer. There will be work, but not if you rely on a company to ‘give’ you a job. Create your own work.’
This is the spirit of self-reliance.
Strip back the possessions in your life until you realize what is necessary. Get rid of everything except for that which you truly need and want. A quote I like is that we should have nothing in our homes that we do not believe to be beautiful or know to be useful.
Increase use of alternative energy and ‘human power’. Learn how to do something. Changing the oil in our Ford costs me a whopping $100 if I pay someone else to do it, but I can buy the oil in bulk for a fraction of that. That’s easy math.
Do more with less. Do you need to get a ride-on lawnmower that guzzles gas? (affiliate link – opens a new window to Amazon) We picked up a small eco-friendly lawnmower – big enough to do the job, small enough for my sons to use, and battery powered. I’m actually a huge fan of Greenworks and I have their weedwhacker, too. Or considering hiring a local youth to mow your lawn and inspire a young entrepreneurial spirit.
Work together with your neighbours, share and help. It seems silly for everyone in the neighbourhood to own – and have to pay for, store and maintain – a ride-on lawnmower, a quality chainsaw, a snowblower or whatever tools that are needed in your area.
Think outside the box. Arthritis locking up your fingers but you want homemade bread? Get a machine to mix it and you’re still filling your bellies with nutritious home cooking.
Take responsibility for doing what you can do for yourself. You cannot do it all, of course, but you should do what you can do. And help those who cannot.
Learn new skills that will increase your self-sufficiency while, at the same time, reducing your dependence on others and what they produce.
It can be done. You weren’t born to simply consume.
You were born to live an abundant life – responsible for your decisions and life choices, self-reliant, self-sufficient and proud of who you are.
You were born for a sustainable, self-reliant life.