Self-reliance is a desirable personal trait in most countries around the world. In the United States, particularly among conservatives, it is regarded as a sacred founding principle.
The self-made (wo)man; pulling yourself up by your bootstraps; Bear Grylls battling alone in the wilderness; the western psyche is teeming with ideas and ideals — both unconscious and overt — that celebrate those who go it alone, reject assistance and single-handedly conquer, overcome and succeed. But as honorable as the idea of self-sufficiency is, (and as desirable as it may be when compared to complete dependency), it seems that we may be taking the idea of self-reliance to the extreme.
According to anthropologists, one of the main reasons humans have flourished on this planet is our cooperative behaviors; our ability to help, support and share new knowledge with each other. However, in recent generations, as our ideals have changed and our infatuation with self-reliance has deepened, we have lost sight of this vital human quality.
We (especially in developed nations) have come to view vulnerability and help-seeking as a weakness. We have come to regard self-sufficiency as the single greatest factor of success. And we have forgotten that the human experience is often defined, not by how hard someone persevered and toiled, but by their personal luck or providence.
I was seven years old when my father left us — my mother, myself and two brothers aged four and ten. I was too young to fully appreciate the gravity of the situation, but I was astute enough to know some things. Firstly, my father had completely abandoned all responsibility of his household, wife and children and had fled the country to avoid the obligatory childcare payments. Secondly, my mother was relatively unskilled and poorly educated (having married and fallen pregnant at the age of 16) and had no immediate family in our hometown. Lastly, as hardworking and tenacious as she was, I was aware that my mother was forced to juggle any prospective employment with the incredible demands of three school-age children.
I remember my mother’s distress one night as she scoured the house to find some money, any money, with which to buy us dinner. Her search revealed one, single cent. I vividly recall the day the bank placed a For Sale sign on our front lawn to advertise the mortgagee auction that would render us homeless, and my mother defiantly ordering my older brother to remove it immediately and hide it in our garden shed. I remember the potted plant we optimistically re-purposed as a Christmas tree by regaling it with ragged tinsel and mismatched baubles and I can still recall the night the ‘repo man’ came to repossess our beloved color TV.
But I remember other things too.
I remember the welfare payments starting, the generous policy of the New Zealand government, and our joy at being able to fill our kitchen cupboards again. I remember the neighbors who came to help and lighten my mother’s overbearing workload. I remember the pastor of the local church discussing with my mother how to renegotiate her mortgage, write a good resumé and find peace with the actions of my father. I remember school holidays spent with grandparents, aunts and family friends while my mother worked two jobs to keep her family fed and safe. I remember the ‘repo man’ sitting with my brothers and me before taking the television, so that we could watch CHiPs in full color one, final time. I remember my mother’s panic when my brother was hit by a car and I now acknowledge, as an adult, the incredible gift of public healthcare that ensured my impoverished mother did not have to pay one dollar toward his hospitalization and recuperation.
Needing help is not a weakness; it is an inevitable byproduct of a fickle human existence, and offering and receiving help is the cornerstone of a well-functioning society.
But in our reverence of self-reliance, it seems we have come to ignore the courage and resilience of those who speak up when they are vulnerable. We have learned to belittle those who have the humility to ask for help and, vitally, we have begun to overlook the incredible benefits of seeking assistance, support and cooperation:
- At work: Studies show that seeking the help of a mentor increases career satisfaction, commitment and likelihood of advancement.
- At school: Students who show a willingness to ask for help perform better academically than their non-willing peers and eventually become better problem solvers and more autonomous learners.
- With addiction and delinquency: Youths who receive early help for substance abuse or behavioral issues show more positive results than those who do not.
- For well being: People with greater social connection (ie. have people they can confide in and lean on for support) are less likely to suffer from depression and anxiety, have stronger immunity to disease and live longer.
- In society: Countries with strong social policies, such as the Scandinavian nations, Canada and New Zealand, consistently lead the world in terms of happiness, prosperity and honesty (ie. lack of corruption).
When I was a child, I had the great privilege of watching my tough, resilient and self-reliant mother work her way up from the edge of destitution and to eventually become a bold and savvy businesswoman. In the process, she raised her three children into successful, adventurous and independent adults. But my mother could never have done it alone. In her time of greatest vulnerability, she asked for help … and the village, that most fundamental lynch-pin of humanity, stepped in to carry her.
So, yes. Having the courage and tenacity to take charge of your circumstances is vital. Self-reliance, self-belief and self-responsibility are admirable personal traits and should be nurtured and encouraged in all of us.
But the idea that we can succeed in life without any life-lines, guidance or support is a dangerous myth. Help is not a four-letter word — instead, I see it as a natural birthright and our greatest responsibility to each other.
Kim Forrester is an award-winning author, educator and intuitive consultant with over 15 years’ experience as a professional intuitive and spiritual teacher. She combines cutting edge science with traditional spirituality to offer the latest understandings of psi, consciousness and holistic well being.
Originally published at medium.com