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Devin D. Thorpe
Devin Thorpe

The Power and Illusion of Self Reliance

There is real power that comes from doing something yourself. Think of those moments when you graduated from college, finished a 10k race setting a personal record, or completed a home improvement project successfully. You probably felt like Rocky Balboa sprinting to the top of the steps.

rocky

Liberals are often criticized by their conservative counterparts for supporting government programs that create dependence among the people they serve. Those same conservatives, however, are often guilty of supporting nonprofit organizations that do the same thing. At the same time, an increasing number of people from across the political spectrum see the importance of helping people develop self-reliance.

That self-reliance, however, is often an illusion.

No one is perfectly self-reliant. Most of us—when we’re honest—can barely make the case for it because we’ve had so much help from parents, friends, teachers, colleagues, employers, investors, fans, followers and, yes, government. As the Reverend Peter Raible penned, “We warm ourselves by fires we did not light. We sit in the shade of trees we did not plant.”

Could George W. Bush ever have become President if his father hadn’t? Could Mark Zuckerberg have grown Facebook without investors willing to fund operating deficits for years before the first dollar of advertising revenue? Could Warren Buffet have become so wealthy without the existence of well-regulated and reasonably transparent financial markets, allowing him both to earn returns on and provide access to capital? It seems that even the most revered among us is, at least in part, dependent on others.

Sam and Diane, not their real names, are my neighbors and dear friends. Both have intellectual deficits, Sam from birth and Diane as a result of a brain injury early in life. They live together in a condo in the same building where I live. Sam works two part-time jobs and serves regularly as a community volunteer. They act and feel genuinely self-reliant in the same sense that most all of us do. Their earned income, however, doesn’t come close to covering their living expenses. They are heavily subsidized by their parents. When they reached their mid-thirties and started to thicken around the middle, their parents provided a personal trainer. With his help, they hit the gym for an hour every day and are quite healthy. They have to do the exercise to get the benefit, but their parents saw the wisdom of providing a coach to hold them accountable.

Katelyn Dalton, courtesy of Teen Force

Katelyn Dalton, courtesy of Teen Force

Recently, I visited with Katelyn Dalton, a STEM staffing specialist for Teen Force, a San Jose, Calif., nonprofit that helps at-risk youth finish high school and get into college. Katelyn is a recovering addict who was homeless for two years. During much of that time she lived in a scavenged tent and had no reliable source of food or income. For her, the breakthrough was getting a job. Having a job gave her back a self-image that allowed her to think she was worthy of living, that she could overcome her addiction and become a productive part of society. She was hired by a social enterprise that employs the unemployable and provides training. It started by helping her learn the basics of employment, like how to show up to work every day and take responsibility for foreseeable transit problems. Today, she is a productive member of society who feels fully self-reliant. She is as independent today as anyone.

Jeffrey Sachs, the famed professor who advises developing countries and works to eradicate extreme poverty, has been a champion of and a lightning rod for the idea that poor countries and individuals simply need a leg up to the first rung of an economic ladder that leads to prosperity. There can be little doubt that a person, community or country comprised of people that lack food, water and shelter needs a leg up. What Sachs seems to be missing is that they also need the sense of self-reliance as much as they need help with food, water and shelter. Pulitzer-prize winning author and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has observed that the best form of aid is a j-o-b. That fact, however, ignores the problem that folks like Katelyn may not be employable in their present situation.

Much of our development and aid discussion both at the international and community level today revolves around the premise that self-reliance is a factual condition. In fact, it is an illusion that gives us all self-confidence and the courage to get up each day to fight our battles to the best of our ability. Virtually everyone has or will face challenges to which we simply were or are not equal. Someone has or will step in to help us over such obstacles.

One key to establishing the critical illusion is to give aid that builds dignity. There are times when aid, conditioned on work or participation in a drug treatment program or staying in school, can enhance self-respect. On the other hand, if too much work is required for too little aid, the result can be dehumanizing and tantamount to a form of slave labor.

For instance, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints routinely provides food and other support to people in need, often explicitly in exchange for “volunteering.” When the expected number of volunteer hours matches up well with the value of the goods and the talents of the recipient, the program works to preserve self-respect. When, however, the volunteer hours required for help exceed its perceived value, the exchange robs participants of their dignity. This is complicated by the fact that two similarly situated participants may react differently to the same program, one feeling indignant while the other feels dignified. To be effective, a program must be flexible enough to build self-worth in the participants. If the program doesn’t build confidence, it isn’t working.

Whether we are talking about helping individuals, families, communities or countries, building a sense of self-reliance is more important than their actually becoming so. We need to stop thinking of our aid in terms of whether it actually fosters independence or dependence and focus on whether it creates the sense of capability. The power of people to rise above their challenging circumstances is more closely tied to their feeling self-reliant than it is to actually being self-reliant. Everyone needs to feel like Rocky once in a while.

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Devin D. Thorpe

2 Responses to The Power and Illusion of Self Reliance

  • Dear Devin,

    I agree with you whole heartedly. I volunteer with a group that works on these principles while serving the homeless and those exiting corrections and I feel safe in saying we would like more information. To me the area with the most need of self respect is in working with those exiting corrections. In a state that has such a vast history with religion and those that have been persecuted for their religion and beliefs, we seem to have little understanding in the process of forgiveness. We let the inmates out of jail or prison at 4 am, wearing whatever they were wearing when they were arrested, so that we don’t have to feed them breakfast. It is almost impossible for anyone with a criminal record to get a job let alone an apartment and will end up sucked back into the parts of society that led them to trouble in the first place. As a society we are setting these folks up to fail instead of the new start they have been dreaming of.

    • Kris, you highlight a great example with specificity. The deck is so stacked against those who are recently released that it is reasonable to expect that it would need extra help. This creates a challenge in establishing greater self-reliance. In a way, I’d like to say we need to discard the fiction of self-reliance, on the other hand there is all kinds of evidence that we need to be held accountable to reach our full potential. Hence, the idea that we need to foster the illusion of self-reliance and provide the support needed to help people reach their potential.

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