Self-Reliance by Living in Community


My thoughts on self-reliance are based on the idea of living in community with others as a necessary precondition to becoming self-reliant.  This is a counter-intuitive notion, yes, but I am not alone in my thinking.  It’s more likely the case that our thinking on self-reliance has been framed by the individualistic culture of US society and as such we have some cognitive hurdles to jump as we think about becoming self-reliant within a community context.

Matthew B. Crawford is one of my favorite authors, speakers, and modern day philosophers. I was taught to only read the works of dead philosophers, not living ones, so in this case Crawford is an anomaly for me.  I read his books, I enjoy them, and the man is still living.  However, it is unfortunate that Crawford’s work is not more readily accessible to the masses, as Mr. Crawford’s writing is challenging to read for those with little background in philosophy.

In his book, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction, Crawford presents a solid argument that individuality, [i.e., self-reliance and self-agency], is developed not in individual solitude but rather while living and working in community with other people. Incidentally, in this way, Crawford’s argument is also congruent with research in resilience science and studies, in that people do not overcome life challenges through sheer individual grit, but rather by being networked well into community.

Ultimately, the question is this, do we create the world in our minds as we live our lives, making representations of various objects as we would like them to be?  Or, is it the case that we live in an objective world that has a solid reality that exists outside of ourselves?

Crawford suggests that our world is objective, tangible, and real.  I agree with him.  In this manner, it is only in a real, tangible community where we bump up against those who have gone before us and those in our community where we are able to work out our individuality, who we are, and become self-reliance as we interact with the objective world.

Let me provide some context.  I have mentioned that I am a retired firefighter.  During my career in firefighting, I worked and lived within a community of other firefighters.  There is a long tradition of firefighting which comes 300 years before my time.  Historical firefighters were able to develop firefighting principles which are still in practice today.  I have learned my craft of firefighting, I have become a self-reliant firefighter, only by working, experiencing, and making mistakes within this community of firefighters.  Were I dropped into a fire station all by myself without a community of firefighters around me, without the historical principles of firefighting behind me, and I tried to figure out firefighting on my own, it would be almost impossible.

But this is the mainline, John Wayne, individual grit and determination cultural milieu which surrounds us and our thoughts on self-reliance.

My counter-intuitive stance on self-reliance, then, is that it’s not found in individual solitude, but exactly the opposite- in social ecologies.  It is in social ecologies- a community of people connected to the local environments- where we live and move and find our being.

If it’s true that self-reliance is important in our lives, it follows that living in community with others is important.  It is only as we spend time in community and learn to relate with one another, that we are more capable of understanding who we are, of becoming self-reliant.

It is living in community, a social-ecology, interacting with and relating with objective reality, where we learn to become self-reliant, trusting our own hearts and listening to our inner voice.

Self-reliance is the art of learning to listen to our own heart and to move with it.  It is within a community of others where we journey through the process of becoming an individual and we learn to become self-reliant.  It is in community where objective reality is made manifest as representing that which really is.

I find the paradox of becoming self-reliant, of discovering who we really are and trusting ourselves, through living and moving within social ecologies, beautiful.

2 thoughts on “Self-Reliance by Living in Community”

  1. This is a really great post, Kelly, very timely and relevant. The illusion of self-reliance is deeply embedded in U.S. political culture. The idea is that if we all just pull ourselves up by our bootstraps then society will take care of itself. This is contrary to the way Americans used to think of themselves. There used to be a strong sense of civic duty, there used to be a pride in being a citizen, and hence JFK could say, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” That resonated with the generation back then, but then the cancer of individualism roared back, and especially since the Reagan era there has been a push by conservatives to deny even the very existence of society. Margaret Thatcher infamously stated “there is no such thing as society.” All of this, of course, is complete nonsense. Culture and society is the necessary precondition for the individual to recognize him/herself as an individual and to then develop a strong and healthy sense of self-reliance. Psychologically, we require social and cultural context to learn language, which is one of the keys to unlocking our uniquely human sense of self.

    Even out here in Alaska, where hermits live in cabins, isolated from other people, it’s still true that we are always embedded in a physical world with other living beings with whom we commune and on whom we depend for food and water and shelter and well-being. For one thing, a hermit living in a cabin was raised within a social context, within which s/he developed a sense of self. For another, those who live out in the bush still have a very real relationship with the world around them, with the deer and moose and with the trees other living beings in the ecosystem. This might sound strange to urban folk who are fairly isolated from the nonhuman world, but communion with the natural world is a bond that is very real and very life-giving.

    I could go on, but I’ll conclude by saying that I think it’s extremely important to keep preaching the Gospel (so-to-speak) of our interconnectedness and interdependence. The stupidity of individualism is what leads to Trump and to violence and exploitation of predatory capitalism, and I don’t think things will change in any substantial way, here in the U.S., until we start having more intelligent discussions on the nature of what it means to be a human being and a true “individual.”


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