You’ve probably taken self-reliance too far

The process of getting some personal autonomy is very important. We need to gain the capacity to be ourselves apart from our parents and to become our true selves in relation to our ultimate parent: God. We yearn to achieve this maturity and we also resist it every step of the way. It is a difficult journey. We can end up too autonomous and we can end up lacking in self-reliance. Most of you reading this have probably taken self-reliance too far.

It’s no wonder you are so splendidly alone at the command center of your own private universe. You were trained to be so at a very early age. Our society is pretty much convinced right now that being self-reliant is the epitome of maturation. We start lessons on autonomy early in our culture. We start getting frustrated with what you can’t do by yourself as soon as you can do anything by yourself. Gwen and I used to laugh over a book we had when our children were small that was all about doing things by oneself. We still use this little girl’s voice when we are making fun of each other for being too self-reliant because we heard her saying in our imaginations: “I can do it by myself.”

all by myselfI went looking for that old book and I found a LOT of books with that same basic title. We really want people to be able to do it by themselves! I ran across a version by one by my favorite kid’s book authors, Mercer Mayer. What’s more, I found a youtube of someone reading it to us! So here is your training for autonomy, in case you missed learning how to be needless of parents and community…and God: All By Myself by Mercer Mayer.

However it happened in your family, we have put a heavy emphasis in our society on the universal need for individuals to individuate. We keep getting trained to be the one and only person in so many ways these days. At least our batmansuperheroes keep teaching us that lesson. Batman is alone in his cave, the master of all technology — nothing is more isolating than spending half your day trying to figure out why your computer does not work, since you are supposed to know everything. Then there is Superman, the ultimate American, alone in his fortress of solitude, being the lonely baby Moses from Krypton, figuring out how to answer distress calls, by himself, from all over the world — he is just like you in the center of your mess trying to figure out how you’ll meet all the requirements and save the world.

As a result of this training, how often do you not call someone for help because you are sure they would be too busy — so you do the best you can to do it by yourself and try not to die from stress? Are you afraid to be inadequate? Are you afraid to be a burden? I hope not, but I would not be surprised if you were.

If your parents had not trained you, you would probably have learned the same survival lessons on your own. Because it is true that we had better learn to be self-reliant if we live in a world without God. A world without God cannot be trusted, and the people who inhabit it are dangerous and demanding. When it comes down to it, if you don’t have God you’ll be in trouble if you can’t rely on yourself.  Married couples are often shocked by this reality when they finally get a look at the incapable, overly-dependent mate they are stuck with. They realize that their partner has some significant weaknesses that are not miraculously going away. So they have a dilemma, “Do I take care of this untrustworthy person my whole life? Do I have a major power struggle that lasts a decade until they shape up? Or do I take off now before I get in too deep?”  This struggle comes on a spectrum from modest to major, of course. It might be “Do you really think I am going to pick up your clothes or fill the gas tank your whole life? You can do that by yourself.” But it might also be “Oh my, your mother really did make you feel incapable and despicable and you are just seeing that!” or “Your lack of having a father left you with a whole set of deficits” or  “The fact that you just became a Christian means that you have a ton of new things to change into and you are not there yet.” The balancing of self-reliance and dependence is not that simple.

In the church we have similar dilemma. We make a covenant with someone or just love someone and take them into our hearts and our church and then we discover that they can’t do stuff. They can’t pay their bills, or respond to a phone call or even greet us warmly. They have issues even though they have been in therapy for a few months. They make the same mistakes all the time, even after you got the courage to say something. What do we do? I have little discussions about this all the time. I am usually on the side that says, “It does me no harm to carry a person who seems to be unable to be self-reliant. So what if they can’t pull off autonomy?” I don’t want to infantilize anyone by being the only one who can do something – keeping people unable or never letting them have their own power. But at the same time, I don’t need to despise people and deprive them because they supposedly should be better than they are.

A lot of people solve the problem of needing to rely on God and others by never attempting anything that is beyond their capabilities — I can’t fail at what I don’t try. They try really hard to never get in a mess. You might say their whole life is focused on avoiding problems that would point out that they have problems. The contestants on the Biggest Loser are always learning the lesson of relying on others because they are all  attempting something that has been beyond themselves. For instance, box jumpJennifer did not win this season but she made a huge difference in her life — and she eventually overcame her fear of attempting what seemed impossible for her: the box jump. The moral to the film clip is: You can do it by yourself if you never try the box jump and just stay locked up in whatever you use to vainly protect yourself. In Jennifer’s case it was her self-protective weight. But if you try something beyond your present capacity you’ll need to rely on someone other than yourself, too, like Jillian — even better, God!

The best way to learn to rely on God is to try something that requires God to do. Has that become your instinct yet? Is it your reaction, to rely on God and his people? Are you learning that, or just sticking with autonomy, as you have been taught from birth? Likewise, one of the best ways to learn to rely on others is to try something that requires a community, not just an individual, to do – which are most things worth doing.  When you need help do you reach out in love, or do you just search Google for two hours? While sorting out how to live in love with healthy, mutual dependence, you’ve probably taken self-reliance too far. If you start with God-reliance it will probably loosen you up to take further steps to undo the pressure to do it by yourself.

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About Rod White

Pastor for Circle of Hope. Graduate of Fuller Seminary, Doctoral student at Eastern University.
This entry was posted in 1 Spiritual Discipline and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to You’ve probably taken self-reliance too far

  1. Pingback: Frozen, and the Invitation of the Cross | More Than This

  2. Jonny Rashid says:

    Nice work, and widely applicable. Interdependence and relying on God are crucial for church planting. A lesson I’m learning all the time.

  3. Thank you! The dynamic described here reminds me of cell, and we even say in the cell plan that cell is one way to do something that requires God – it is that hard, if you really show up to it. You are always, at some point, the one who is being a burden, and you are also the one, at some point, the one who is carrying the burden. We track salt through Ana’s nice house, and Wenson walks us home, and Lauren holds Leo, and we hear about someone’s doubt, and we pray awkwardly, sometimes. It’s a good place to practice. :)

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