The Myth of Self-Sufficiency (or How I Found My Way Out of Lonely)
The Myth ~
We aim for self-sufficiency like a prized trophy. We do so with the help of mythology.
The American Prairie plays a significant role in our contemporary understanding of self-sufficiency. During the 1840s and 50s, when gold-diggers, land speculators and homesteaders headed West, a large number of people and families staked their claim to a piece of America smack-dab in the middle of the country, where there was an expansive sky, plenty of fertile soil, herds of buffalo and sweeping winds. Families dotted the landscape in their sod homes and simple cabins, often with their closest neighbor fifteen miles away. This environment gave rise to the idea that self-sufficiency was honorable, noble and somehow grand because one counted only upon one’s own wits, resourcefulness and skills.
We romanticized this time and again in our country’s creation myths. We lionized and created icons out of self-sufficient and resourceful individuals, like we did with the rags to riches stories of Horatio Alger. We have been inculcated to believe that we are all better off on our own. Those who are successful are often seen as strong, singular, “without complaint,” self-reliant, resourceful and self-contained. It’s the “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” kind of thinking.
Personally, I relate to this Midwestern grit, and find that I stand a bit taller and straighter because of it. There is pride and satisfaction in this can-do and self-reliance. Maybe you relate to these feelings, too.
The problem is, the stories we’ve told ourselves are not true. The “we’ve-done-it-on-our-own” tales are simply that—tales that have wreaked havoc on our collective consciousness and identity. We’ve put self-sufficiency on the mantle like a prize, much to the detriment of relationships. Who do we laud in this country? The “self-made” among us, of course! And there really are none…But these are the exceptions and not the rule, if they even exist.
Community has been of utmost importance to any endeavor, whether that endeavor has been collective, family-related or a personal challenge.
If you read deep into the town origins of the rural Midwest and western outposts, you’ll find them peppered with strong communal ties. Relationships could be the rise and fall of townships and founding families’ fortunes. If you didn’t play by the rules or stepped beyond the bounds of decency you could be either run out of town or pulled closer to the town’s bosom for care and redemption. The long arms of the town and country folks always found you. They saw you. They heard you. They knew you. They were your support in good and bad times. When it was the season for bringing in the crops, the farmers were there for each other. When it was time to build the schoolhouse, the townspeople all pitched in. When the first graduates of their humble schoolhouse went back East for further education, most everyone was there at the train depot offering well-wishes, food and money. When a baby cried out for the first time, half the town was waiting outside the house. When tragedy struck one family, it touched all families in the county.
So, the truth is, there were no self-made men or women. No one could last on their own in such an unforgiving landscape. Everyone needed the help of each other to survive and to thrive. That was the story that failed to make it down to us through the decades. Instead, we received the myth of self-sufficiency, individual grit and personal stamina.
Johnny entered my room with a large grin and sparkly eyes as he came to check my vitals. “Ms. Hopkins, you are the BEST patient ever. The other nurses and I wish that all our patients were like you. You’re just a delight. Ah, everything looks good here. Call if you need anything. Kristina will be in to check your glucose levels. Bye!” His words bounced around in my head like a pinball machine, hitting on some pretty large targets with lots of points. DING, DING—Ding, ding, DING!
I had been in the hospital unexpectedly with kidney stones and an infection that required emergency surgery. Having never been in the hospital as a patient, I didn’t know what was expected of me, so I did what I usually do. I tried to take care of myself. AND I tried to take care of others and their feelings. By that I mean, I made sure the hospital staff knew how much I loved and appreciated them, even if it meant I did the heavy lifting. Most importantly, I did my utmost to appear capable, can-do and self-sufficient. I asked for nothing. After surgery I didn’t even realize that I could ask for pain medication or to have the pneumatic compression devices removed from my legs so that I could get to the bathroom. I thought pain was part of it (and that, I could handle) and I figured out how to remove and replace the compression “thingy-mabobs” so that I could take my groggy, achy self to the bathroom.
But when Johnny said that I was the best patient ever and that he wished others were like me, he said more than that I was cheery and fun. I wasn’t any trouble. I didn’t require any help or assistance. I was self-sufficient.
Hospitals are not places where you are required to be or should be self-sufficient. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Patients are most often incredibly vulnerable and needy with suffering bodies and weary souls. Nurses and doctors do the work they do because they want to help and to serve those in need.
Laying in that bed, in the dark with all the medical devices chirping, I thought about how odd it was that I couldn’t bring myself to press the nurse “call” button when the alarm for my pneumatic compression sleeves sounded. Instead, I silenced the alarm myself and got things operating again. I had watched carefully as they were placed on me before surgery, so I knew how they worked.
The pride I usually feel when self-sufficient was not present during the time of my hospital stay. Self-sufficiency had been trying to teach me something for years, but I only really noticed its impact when I was unceremoniously dropped into the hospital. I noticed that my wife was the only one with me. I found that I put on such a great show-of-it on Facebook, at my work place and in the world at-large. Because of the inbred and practiced self-sufficiency, I faced the surgery and my subsequent birthday-in-the-hospital with a smile that said “I don’t need anyone. I’m good. Look at this goofiness! Of course, I’m fine.” But what I felt was a mixture of “I’m great” with a greater part of “I’m lonely.”
In the wee hours of my stay, I re-constructed parts of my life that led to this loneliness: family dysfunction, red-headed stubbornness, unenlightened church teachings, leadership trainings, fear of being disappointed by others and the self-sufficiency ethos of Kansas that I must have bathed in growing up. I looked at how I created this loneliness out of my self-sufficiency. I can hear my mother say from my childhood, “If you have one or two close friends in your lifetime, you’ve lived a good life,” to which I never thought to ask, “Why not more, Mama?” But I never questioned my mother and her exuberant steeliness, not until much later—after I, too, had followed my mother’s well-coifed cheer and had been crowned Ms. Exuberance myself as a middle-aged woman. Mother had been loved by many, but known by none because of her stalwart self-sufficiency. I was quickly heading in her lonely direction.
I felt the sting of Simon and Garfunkel’s famous refrain, “I am a rock. I am an iiiiiiiii-i-iisland.” The song ends, “and a rock feels no pain…and an island never cries.” I had become so seemingly self-sufficient that close friends felt continents away.
The hospital is fortunately in my rear-view mirror and Simon and Garfunkel’s refrain is no longer a destination. I continue to reflect upon my revelations and am working on a daily basis to reach beyond my usual “I can take care of this myself.” Now, I am taking on the exercise of making phone calls to friends, just-for-the-hell-of-it without any need to wait for a “reason” to call, like to give a report or to offer counsel. I have made it a goal to ask for help each day with 5 things or matters, even it is simply, “May I please have the salt?” or to a taller person in the grocery store, “Would you be so kind as to reach that box on the top shelf for me?”
People want to help. We are made to be relational. We need each other. Friends are out there waiting for us to befriend. We are not meant to be lonely or to travel our paths without companions on the way. “No man is an island,” John Donne first advised us in 1624. Our success, no matter how noble our ideals or how much we contribute to society, means nothing, if there is no community with which to share the travails and triumphs. And frankly, our goals and aspirations aren’t attainable without the support of community. Not a single soul to date has moved and shaped the world without others. Jesus had his twelve disciples. King David had Jonathan and company. Mohammed had his close knit clan and family. Martin Luther King, Jr. had an entourage of women and men who loved, supported and walked with him. No one and no community becomes great on their own.
So, self-sufficiency is not all it’s cracked up to be and it’s actually a myth—a myth that still whispers to us from our western origins. As a way of staying safe or protected from the possible errors, miscalculations or bad advice from others, this false sense of self-sufficiency keeps us from enjoying the company and brilliance of colleagues, friends, family and those with whom we’ve just struck up a conversation. Granted, it is perhaps a bit messy to depend on imperfect people or to need their friendship, guidance and embrace. But to not get into the stuff-of-life with all its ups-and-downs is far more painful.
Any excuse you can raise against community is a rationale for a soul-sick life and lackluster success. So drop the myth of self-sufficiency and pick up your phone. Make some calls. Ask for help. Write the letters that are long overdue. Step away from work. Grab dinner and a movie with a friend or acquaintance. Lighten and loosen up for goodness sake! Be in the beautiful mess of life, instead of alone with the myth of self-sufficiency.
Smile and the World Smiles With You! ♥️
Join the Hooray Family ~