Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

Self-reliance means being helpless

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There is a persistent funny form of suspicion in most of us that we can solve our own problems and be the masters of our own ships of life, but the fact of the matter is that by ourselves we can only be consumed by our problems and suffer the shipwreck.

—Harry Stack Sullivan (February 21, 1892–January 14, 1949)

Like most high-school students in in the early 1960s, I had an assignment to read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay called “Self-reliance.” So much time has passed since then that I no longer recall what impression that essay made on me, aside from recalling what is perhaps the best-known quotation from that essay: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” That’s as much of the quotation as I have remembered for most of my life. The passage in which it occurs provides more context:

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — ‘Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’ — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.

Over the decades I have encountered several people who took false comfort in the last line of that passage by reasoning, fallaciously, that if to be great is to be misunderstood, then to be misunderstood is to be great. Such people usually assure themselves, without evidence, that they are misunderstood.

As much as I admire Emerson’s writing style—what writer has not wished he or she could have written any number of Emerson’s beautifully crafted sentences?—being little-minded as I am, I find myself in fundamental disagreement with not only that famous quotation but also with the very idea of self-reliance.

Emerson wrote “Self-reliance” in 1841, a time when many Americans were caught up in the myth of self-reliance and staunch individualism. That myth became especially strong after the Civil War as people of European descent became preoccupied with colonizing the American West by wresting lands away from Native Americans and imposing their values upon the peoples who had lived there for millennia. The romantic heroes of that mythology were the pioneers and the cowboys. According to that fanciful narrative, the pioneers and cowboys were independent-minded freedom-loving white men, and their obedient women, whose sole desire was to be left alone, especially by anything resembling Government. That mythology is still alive among many Americans who show their self-reliant individualism by driving pickup trucks and wearing cowboy hats, even if they are bankers or real-estate agents living in downtown Denver or Phoenix. To prove one’s rugged individualism, it is important to dress and behave and talk like all the other rugged individualists in one’s neighborhood.

As an aside, I should make it clear that although I went to high school in a suburb of Denver, I never wore cowboy boots until I went to college in Wisconsin and had to prove to those midwesterners that I was a true son of the Wild West. During my high school years I was in hot pursuit of a different fantasy, namely, that I was a beatnik, which I proved by wearing huarache sandals, a beret and shades. My body was in a suburb of Denver, but my soul was in Greenwich Village, a place I could not find on a map of Manhattan. But I digress, as is my wont.

As the decades have rolled by, the idea of self-reliance has increasingly revealed to me its fraudulent nature. Simply put, there is no such thing as self-reliance. There may be a few—a very few—people who live as solitary hermits far from the madding crowd whose reliance is only to a small degree on their fellow human beings. They are not, however, so much self-reliant as reliant on the natural world that surrounds them—the plants, animals, rivers, waterholes, caves and canyons that form the network of interdependent entities that nowadays we call a habitat. Who knows what such hermits think, but my guess is that in order to survive at all, they must form habits based on their experiences of what works and what does not. In short, their thought patterns are for the most part habitual and therefore consistent from one day to the next. Hermits such as those cannot afford the luxury of thinking today what contradicts everything they thought yesterday. If they cannot do so, how much less can we who live within any kind of human society do so?

Emerson had many intriguing and even a few useful ideas. His notion of self-reliance was not one of them. Perhaps tomorrow I will think differently.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Wednesday, November 30, 2022 at 11:18

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