“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”
Whew! That’s quite a list Robert Heinlein laid out in his novel, “Time Enough for Love.” As we might have deduced, Heinlein, a science-fiction writer, strongly advocated for the virtues of individual liberty and self-reliance in his work.
Few of us, I suspect, could match all of Heinlein’s criteria for being human. In my case, I fall short in several departments. I’ve never set a bone, programmed a computer, or conned a ship—unless you count my father’s power boat. Nor have I butchered a hog, although three of my adolescent grandchildren have performed that exercise and slaughtered chickens in the bargain.
Of course, Heinlein refers not so much to specific tasks but was instead encouraging a generalization of talents and skills as opposed to specialization. If we read back through his inventory, we see that he was, in fact, celebrating self-reliance, a trait embedded in what it means to be an American.
Origins“Root, hog, or die.”
Nineteenth-century settlers sometimes turned their pigs into the fields and forest to forage for food, but they also commonly used that expression as a metaphor for self-reliance. For most of our history, in fact, men and women exhibited many of the talents found in Heinlein’s checklist. The ones who moved west built houses and barns, planted fields, hunted for food, and faced dangers from accidents, the weather, and wildlife. You either carved out a livelihood in the wilderness or returned east to the relative safety and comfort of towns and cities.
Preceding those hardy folks were the colonists who, removed from the familiar comforts they had left behind in countries such as England, France, and Germany, confronted even grimmer tribulations. To a greater degree than they had ever experienced, they were on their own, facing both dangers and a solitary independence they had never imagined. In 1607, for example, 104 men founded a colony in Virginia they called Jamestown. By the end of the first year, only 38 of them remained alive. Eventually, the survivors and those colonists who later joined them learned to cope with the demands of this strange, new land.
And Today?Those physical skills of self-reliance practiced by our ancestors are much diminished by time and circumstance. Most of us buy our clothing online or from a store; we take our cars to a mechanic for an oil change; we seek out a repair shop when our phones or laptops start misbehaving.
Yet we still retain an admiration for those we know who keep beehives, grow gardens, undertake home repairs, and tinker with the engines of their cars.
Although we may not be milking our own cows or building a log cabin from scratch, plenty of writers, life coaches, grandparents, and parents stress self-reliance as a vital tool for a successful life. Visit most bookstores, and you’ll find a large self-help section—volumes intended to promote self-improvement and, by extension, self-reliance. Google “importance of self-reliance,” and scores of sites appear praising self-sufficiency and its attributes.
Schoyck echoes Emerson’s thought in his article: “Self-reliant people judge the world around them based on a set of principles that are under continuous review for the truth.”
He then gives his readers the five beneficial byproducts of self-reliance: self-knowledge, standing on your own two feet, confidence in yourself, strong relationships with others, and leadership abilities. To trust and rely on your own talents, instincts, and insights, tempered by a “continuous review for the truth,” is the cornerstone for all these other building blocks of character.
Passing It Forward
And here’s some more good news: We can teach self-sufficiency to our children.
These lessons should begin early. When you’re on the way out the door and the 5-year-old is still tying his shoes, resist the urge to help him. Teach the 10-year-old how to do a load of laundry. A teenager who's learning to drive should know how to use a tire gauge and how to check the oil of a car and should, for practice, perform these tasks before a long family trip. If that same teen needs to miss a soccer practice, have them make the phone call to the coach. I’ve seen too many college-age students who still want Mom or Dad to call a doctor or a teacher instead of taking that responsibility on themselves.
PitfallsCarried too far, self-reliance becomes a detriment rather than an asset. Whether it’s getting the lawn cut when the mower breaks down, taking financial help from a family member when we’re slammed with unexpected medical expenses, or asking some friends to help us load a moving van, we can’t depend solely on our own resources all the time. A community of family, friends, and neighbors can offer everything from consolation when our lives take some horrible turn to chainsaws and labor when a storm brings down a tree in our driveway.
This Crucial Moment in HistoryIn the 1945 edition of “Essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson,” which I have at hand, a journalist and literary critic of that day, Burton Roscoe, wrote of “Self-Reliance” in the introduction to this volume: “We cannot, or we should not, depend too much on others. We cannot allow others to live our lives for us, or even to regulate our lives, without losing that identity we should maintain as unique and individual human beings.”
For the past two years, we've allowed others to “regulate our lives.” Various agencies—governments, corporations, and international organizations—have trampled on our liberties, rights, and customs, often under the guise of misinformation or deliberate deceit.
If ever there was a time we needed a revival of self-reliance, in all its manifestations, that time is now. Self-reliance is more than the “foundation of independence.” It's the very heart of courage and grit.