It is often said that the inhabitants of rich, modern societies lack the self-reliance of their ancestors. But self-reliance involves more than building a log cabin and hunting for food. Above all, it means knowing you can trust your own instincts and judgements. And, like any other skill, the more you practise the better you will become.
George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, authors of the two great dystopian novels of the 20th century, both worried about the way modern life reduced people. In his 1946 article Pleasure Spots, for example, Orwell wrote with contempt of plans to build giant pleasure resorts in Hawaii. To Orwell, living in the bombed ruins of post-war England, such resorts seemed utterly contemptible, representing nothing less than an attempt to escape consciousness and, in his words, "return to the womb." Orwell had not only survived the war but also the Great Depression, during which he had lived among the poor in Paris and London, reported on mining conditions in northern England, tramped the roads with the homeless, and even fought in the Spanish Civil War. He came to admire the courage and toughness he witnessed and to feel that such hardship can breed solidarity, kindness and even nobility. The "machine age," he warned, would turn human beings into pampered babies unable to do anything for themselves. For Orwell, self-reliance was vital if people were to preserve their humanity.
In Aldous Huxley's classic novel Brave New World, he depicts a future in which people have exchanged freedom for safety. Independent thought is discouraged and every effort is made to keep people happy. The government even supplies citizens with free drugs to help them escape. Towards the end of the novel there is a confrontation between a representative of this new world and a man who has been raised outside it (nicknamed 'the savage'). The two argue, with the government official assuring the savage that people are happy and that no one really wants struggle, hardship and poverty. The savage replies that the inhabitants of this society are pathetic and that their happiness is the happiness of a child. He drops out and builds his own little home where he catches food, gathers fuel, and relies on himself.
If self-reliance had to be reduced to just one thing it would be inner strength. People with inner strength do not need to escape into alcohol or drugs, neither do they need others to make their decisions or take care of them. Those who do not believe they can rely on themselves tend to become attached to stronger personalities. This in turn leaves them vulnerable to domination and manipulation. And such people often end up trapped in co-dependent relationships. The self-reliant form their own opinions rather than regurgitating the views of their friends. And because they feel confident in themselves and trust themselves, they are more likely to question authority and find new ways of doing things. They are also less likely to be aggressive or violent. Aggression is usually a sign of fear and frustration rather than confidence and strength.
Self-reliance can be learnt, just like any other skill. But it is also something to be practised and cultivated.
1) Knowledge is power. Self-reliance is founded on knowledge. The more you know, the more confident you will be. For example, people who struggle with math and technology often fear banks and make little effort to understand how their money can be moved around to maximize security and wealth. So take some time to familiarize yourself with banks and how they work, with the different accounts and so on. And learn all you can about other practical subjects. Do you know how a car works? Would you be able to change a tyre or get an engine going? How about practical matters around the home? Could you install a new computer or TV? Always be open to new knowledge, no matter what that may be – you never know when it might prove useful. Read the newspaper and listen to the news; if the reporter talks about something you don't understand, like share prices or globalization, never shrug your shoulders and say "oh, we weren't taught this at school." You aren't a child any more. You live in the Information Age and can research it for yourself. Many people who leave a long marriage to a domineering partner find themselves as helpless as children. At first, all the new things they must learn can overwhelm them – but soon it becomes exhilarating.
2) Take responsibility. You are responsible for your health and happiness, not others. Other people can make a huge difference, but they are not responsible. Don't blame your work colleagues if your work isn't good enough. If you are late, don't yell at your partner for not setting the alarm clock. If you don't like your job, go and get another one. Above all, don't expect others to care; they may do, but that is something for which you should be grateful, not something you have a right to expect. And avoid self-pity. Life is hard and things constantly go wrong. Don't whine or complain when they do; look for solutions instead. There are plenty of people out there whose lives are much harder and more unfair than yours.
3) Make your own decisions. When people say they are looking for advice, they often mean they want someone to tell them what to do. Instead, make a point of deciding things for yourself. Many people are so arrogant and overbearing that, given a chance, they will take over. Indeed, some people love nothing more than to correct others and encourage them to change their mind. Obviously, at times you will need advice, and in certain situations others do know best. But in general make a point of deciding things for yourself and then standing by your decision, even if you chose poorly. Those who lack self-reliance have a tendency to sit back and allow life to happen to them.
4) Learn how to be alone. This does not mean that in order to be self-reliant you must embrace loneliness – or even that you must live alone. But knowing that you can be alone and survive is important. Countless people endure miserable marriages because they are convinced that they could not cope without their partner. In fact, this is rarely true. Life may be hard to begin with, but most are pleasantly surprised at how well they do.
5) Learn how to physically defend yourself. This is perhaps the most fundamental form of self-reliance. It should be stressed, however, that this does not mean hitting out when someone annoys or offends you. A good self-defence instructor will teach you how to inflict minimal damage on your attacker – enough to save yourself from harm and escape the situation.
Practise the above skills and you will find that they reinforce one another. For example, if you make an effort to learn new skills and absorb useful information, you will have the confidence to make your own decisions. And if you know the decision you made was yours, you will be more likely to take responsibility if things don't work out. Your level of self-reliance can best be measured by how you react when things go wrong. Never ask who or what is to blame but what can be done.