I had a huge misconception of what Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson is about. As I go through it, I’m leaning that self-reliance isn’t about being “self-made” or “pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps” or “doing it on your own.” We Americans still seem to really love to look up to people that we think have done this, but guess what. No one ever has been, and no one ever will be, a self made person.
Back in 2012, President Barack Obama got a lot of shit for his “you didn’t build that” statements on the campaign trail for his re-election. But of course, in our five second soundbite, attention deficient society, his detractors either deliberately left out the context, didn’t understand it, or just didn’t care.
My best understanding of what he was saying is: You didn’t build that alone. You had help, and it’s your responsibility to share the rewards of the effort that everyone involved put into it.
No one builds anything worthwhile alone. As a matter of fact, no one can survive as a self contained unit. Get yourself shot into space on your own and you’ll see just how much you take for granted that you need to survive, never mind thrive.
I couldn’t be writing this silly little series if Emerson hadn’t written Self-Reliance in the first place.
I couldn’t be writing this silly little series if someone hadn’t taught me how to read and write.
I couldn’t be writing this silly little series if someone hadn’t fed, clothed, and protected me before I could do that myself.
I couldn’t be writing this silly little series if someone hadn’t invented language.
I couldn’t be writing this silly little series if I wan’t born with a (somewhat) functioning brain.
Those few statements barely scratch the surface. We could go so deep into the rabbit hole of all of the things that must come together to allow us to do the things we are doing now we’d never climb out of it.
At the same time – you, and only you, are in a unique situation put together by those very same circumstances that were beyond your control.
The self-reliance that Emerson is talking about is having enough trust in yourself to use those absolutely unique, 100% original circumstances, skills, and interests as only you can.
Imitation is fine for learning a skill, and there’s nothing wrong with using it as a tool… but when you come up with a better hammer, don’t keep pounding away with the old one just because you are terrified of what others will think of you when they see you trying the new one.
You may not be as famous as Emerson. Maybe you’re the person who lets someone take a left in front of them during rush hour. Maybe you’re the person who lifts someone up when life has smacked them down hard. Maybe you’re the person who leads the march for positive change. Maybe you’re the person who participates in the march – without the marchers, the leaders are useless.
You know what you are here to do. You have a “passion”. It may not be “rah rah” passion – but it’s a love of something, and it’s there despite years of burying it. It’s not just a dream – it’s a mission, and only you can accomplish it.
If you don’t think that you know what you are here to do, you’re probably lying to yourself. That’s OK… I did that for years myself – still do sometimes. This shit ain’t easy – putting yourself out there, even to yourself, is fucking terrifying.
It doesn’t even have to be well defined at this point. It can be messy as hell (it will be messy as hell) while you stumble around. That’s OK too.
And if you still “don’t know” what it is – I’ll break a rule here and tell you what to do:
Get started. Keep moving. We need you, and we can’t wait anymore.
We’re here to help in any way we can.