What does it really mean to be self-reliant?
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it really means to be “self-reliant.”
We talk a lot about self-reliance (or self-sufficiency) in the homesteading community, and outwardly it may seem as if the goal of “achieving” self-reliance is what ultimately drives many of us to live this lifestyle in the first place.
But what does self-reliance look like in the 21st century? Is it actually achievable, or just a pipe dream?
Is it even possible to be truly self-reliant?
Is self-reliance a delusion?
A few years ago, Forbes published an article titled Dear Homesteaders, Self-Reliance is a Delusion.
In the article, the author explains that he’s a big fan of “shows about doomsday preppers, homesteaders, survivalists, generally people who live off the grid,” citing Live Free Or Die and Homestead Rescue as a couple of his favourites.
He then goes on to say that “there’s a central delusion in these shows that is never far from my mind when I’m watching these shows: off the grid people are not self-reliant, but instead are mooching off of the civil society, government, and safety net the rest of us contribute to.”
What the WHAAA???
He continues, “the people in these shows often describe a very romantic vision of the lives they have chosen [and] the ethos underlying it. They describe themselves as fully self-reliant, and criticize the rest of society as being dependent and lacking in this self-reliance… they nevertheless benefit tremendously from society.”
The author argues that even the most hardcore, off-the-grid homesteaders still rely on modern tools, resources and material goods (even if they’re second-hand) that they are not able to produce themselves.
He also says that most homesteaders will (at some point or another) rely on modern medical treatment, and that they benefit from social systems and services like private property protections, rule of law, and the military which provides them with safety and security.
He concludes that “self-reliance is for the most part a myth. Unless they live in an extremely remote region, use all homemade tools, and will refuse the safety net if they need it, most homesteaders are far from self-reliant.”
Let’s unpack this…
What does self-reliant really mean?
Unpacking the myth of modern day self-reliance
I’ll begin by saying that the author of this Forbes article is not completely wrong. Most (if not all) homesteaders do benefit from society in one way or another, and will eventually need to rely on others to provide for them in some way. But this has always been true for homesteaders, and indeed, for humans in general.
We are complex, social creatures and we live in an increasingly complex world. It’s difficult if not impossible to achieve complete self-reliance and independence. And besides, that’s not the goal of most homesteaders anyway. But we’ll get to that in a minute.
The fact is, even back in the pioneer days, homesteaders still had to go to town to purchase or trade for goods they couldn’t produce themselves, and they still relied on their neighbours and friends to help out with larger projects, exchanging goods and services, etc.
As folks aged, they relied on the younger members of their families and communities to help care for them, and many even called the doctor and relied on the medical system of the day when necessary.
Even back then, homesteaders benefitted from the protection of law enforcement and even from “government handouts” like the free land given to settlers by the government during the days of the Homestead Act.
Going back even farther, humans have always depended on each other for survival. Whether they were members of the first civilizations of the ancient times or the tribes that date back to the hunter gatherer times, very few humans have truly “gone it alone” without any outside help.
Even the family unit is inherently interdependent and so one could make the argument that homesteading family members who rely on each other for various reasons can not actually be considered “self-reliant.”
In reality, small, decentralized, local communities and strong, interdependent relationships with one another are essential to self-reliance in many ways. But then can we really call ourselves self-reliant?
Is anyone truly self-reliant??
Related: 6 Ways to Promote Self-Reliance in Your Community
What does it mean to be self-reliant?
The concept of self-reliance has been written about many times throughout history. Some of the first and most famous literary works on self-reliance was written back in the 1800’s by the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, both of whom spoke about self-reliance and preached the importance of maintaining free will and autonomy over one’s own life.
In his famous essay appropriately titled Self-Reliance, Emerson wrote “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”
By “a foolish consistency” he was referring to conformity, and was making the case that one should think critically and follow his or her own instincts and judgment (ie. rely on one’s SELF to decide what’s best for them, rather than relying on systems and “the state” to decide for them).
In Thoreau’s famous book Walden (which was all about his experience living a self-reliant lifestyle in a log cabin on Walden Pond), Thoreau wrote “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
He also wrote that “Every path but your own is the path of fate. Keep on your own track, then.”
Both Emerson and Thoreau (who were friends) seemed to believe that self-reliance is mostly about upholding the core values of independence, individuality and self-determination.
While this can (and often does) entail relying on one’s own skills and abilities to produce or procure what’s needed rather than relying on others, it can be argued that self-reliance is more of a mindset, an attitude and a way of life rather than a strict adherence to surviving only off of what you can do and produce alone with your own hands.
Even Henry David Thoreau lived on someone else’s land (Ralph Waldo Emerson supposedly owned the land next to Walden Pond). He traded homegrown beans for rice and other commodities he couldn’t produce himself, and he likely used tools that he didn’t make himself to build his log home. And he almost certainly didn’t make the the ink or the paper that he used to pen his legendary essays on.
But in comparison to the rest of civilized society, he was definitely much MORE self-reliant than the average guy (or gal).
Which brings up an interesting consideration:
Maybe becoming completely self-reliant IS a delusion. Maybe it’s just not possible. But maybe that shouldn’t be the goal anyway.
Instead, maybe self-reliance is about the constant pursuit to be MORE self-reliant, even if absolute, 100% self-reliance is never truly attainable.
And despite what others may say; Despite the opinions of a suit-clad, New York City-based economist and Forbes contributor who admits to believing this lifestyle “seems like a hard life,” I would argue that complete and total self-reliance isn’t the point or the goal.
In fact, I don’t believe there is an end goal! Self-reliance is an ongoing pursuit, or journey, if you will. And it’s a noble and worthwhile one.
Not to mention, it’s precisely this ongoing pursuit that keeps things interesting. If anyone were to ever “achieve” self-reliance, what else would there be left to work toward?
The pursuit – the JOURNEY – is what drives us.
What I know for sure…
What I know for sure is that self-reliance shouldn’t be regarded as an all-or-nothing venture. Just because one can never attain complete and total self-reliance doesn’t mean the only other moral option is to give up trying altogether and conform to modern society’s standards and expectations.
We are an “all or nothing” society it seems. We often think that if we can’t do something perfectly, what’s the point of even trying?
But as with just about everything that’s worth doing, working toward greater self-reliance and independence is worth doing imperfectly. Don’t be dissuaded by a lack of experience or knowledge or by where you live or even what you’re “legally allowed” or physically capable of doing. Even one small step toward being more self-sufficient is a step in the right direction.
My advice is to start with your mindset. I wrote a post about this way back when I started blogging, all about the traits and attitudes that make for a successful homesteader. I believe that having the right mindset is a foundational first step on the path to any goal or dream you’re working toward.
Then take it one step at a time. Have realistic expectations and don’t put too much pressure on yourself to do everything perfectly and all at once. Take comfort in the fact that no matter where you are on the journey, you’ll never run out of interesting and empowering new skills and things to learn and try.
Above all, enjoy the pursuit. At the end of the day, it’s the pursuit of our goals and dreams that makes life worth living. Actually achieving them only provides a momentary high.
I’ll leave you with one final quote by Henry David Thoreau (whose literature I definitely recommend reading!)…
“If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”
In other words, you do you!
To the pursuit of self-reliance! To independence and individualism! And above all, to the pursuit of dreams, and to never letting the haters stop you in your tracks;)
What does self-reliance mean to you? Share your thoughts in the comments below👇
Ready to take the next step toward greater self-reliance?
While we may never achieve total self-reliance, we can work toward becoming MORE self-reliant and less dependent on corrupt and unreliable systems and industries who consistently put their own interests ahead of ours. But it can be tough to know where to start or what to focus our attention on, and it can be even more difficult to go it alone.
That’s why I decided to create the Society of Self-Reliance; a monthly membership and private community that focuses on the many different themes and aspects of self-sufficiency. From growing and preserving food to crafting your own herbal medicine to learning basic construction and survival skills to creating greater financial independence, we’ll be covering all the different aspects of self-sufficiency over time. But more importantly, we’ll have a private space to connect and learn from one another. Because remember: A strong community makes for greater self-sufficiency!
I’ll be opening the doors to the Society for a limited time next week at a discounted rate for the first round of students.
If you’re ready to take the next step on your self-sufficiency journey and reclaim your independence, join the waitlist here!
I hope to see you inside:)
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I have a hard time taking someone seriously when they talk about self-reliance if they haven’t even tried this lifestyle. I don’t ever expect to be completely self-sufficient but at least I’m trying!
Amen to that! It reminds me of the famous quote by Theodore Roosevelt: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming…” In other words, it’s much easier to do nothing and criticize from the sidelines than it is to strive for something difficult that may be impossible to achieve perfectly, but is still worth pursuing.
Good points and love the quotes. Many people consider me “a granola” because I cook from scratch and use very little process foods. I like to eat “real food” that taste good with herbs and spices that we grew in our garden or picked up at a farmers’ market or what my husband hunted for meat. I consider myself “a modern day homesteader” for I like my indoor gas stove, washing machine, dish washer, refrigerator, freezer and of course indoor bathroom. I am more in tune to what I purchase and consume. I prefer to repurpose anything I can for another use, can, dry and freeze food, make my own cleaning products. I only produce one garbage a month and I could go longer but just want to empty the can after a month. I live the reduce and reuse concept all the time and always try to think of ways to do this more than I have for years. I mend clothes rather than throwing clothes out. I cut old t-shirts for rags. I love to do some crafts when I can find some spare time as well. I love to decorate with real greens, pine cones and assorted dried plants and seeds from the outdoors for afterwards I can compost it all. There is so much all of us can do to help Mother Earth stay healthy. We all have our limits on what or what not we are willing to do and that is okay but any little bit by everyone helps. I prefer to enjoy friends and family at wherever they are at in life and not be judgmental for we all can only try our best and keep our sanity at the same time. I enjoy being in tune with nature and enjoying the outdoors and trying my best to keep the environment and my home healthy with taking the time to do all I do. It is time consuming but I find it satisfying to care about Mother Earth and all she has to offer us to enjoy. Love watching wild life so much. My husband says, we are easily entertained. I enjoy following you for you keep it simple, positive and very productive in your creating.