The Myth of Self-Suffiency


Normally, I'm pretty cold to the notion of self-reliance, which is why the latest issue of In Character was disappointing, which is unusual for that fine journal.

However, one piece stands out: Bill McKibben's "Old MacDonald Had A Farmers’ Market."

Every culture has its pathologies, and ours is self-reliance. From some mix of our frontier past, our Little House on the Prairie heritage, our Thoreauvian desire for solitude, and our amazing wealth we’ve derived a level of independence never seen before on this round earth. We’ve built an economy where we need no one else; with a credit card, you can harvest the world’s bounty from the privacy of your room. And we’ve built a culture much the same — the dream houses those architects build, needless to say, come with a plasma screen in every room. As long as we can go on earning good money in our own tiny niche, we don’t need a helping hand from a soul — save, of course, from the invisible hand that cups us all in its benign grip.

There are a couple of problems with this fine scenario, of course. One is: we’re miserable. Reported levels of happiness and life-satisfaction are locked in long-term one-way declines, almost certainly because of this lack of connection. Does this sound subjective and airy? Find one of the tens of millions of Americans who don’t belong to anything and convince them to join a church, a softball league, a bird-watching group. In the next year their mortality — the risk that they will die in the next year — falls by half.

It brings to mind the notion of interdependence, which is a very Catholic and catholic idea. Sociologically speaking, independence as just as undesirable as dependence. Instead, the ideal family/neighborhood/society structure would be one of voluntarily interdependence. Total dependence on the state or other individuals leads to sloth and envy, while total independence leads to greed and pride as well as a general disdain for others. Mutual interdependence, recognizing the truth that man flourishes in relationship to fellow man, leads to humility and charity.

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This page contains a single entry by Papa-Lu published on January 30, 2007 7:36 PM.

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