It took me over four decades to fully understand the notion of complete self-reliance for what it is: a myth. We live with the fiction that some people are "self-made" or "pulled themselves up by their bootstraps." "What?!" you are now shouting at me. How dare I burst the great American fairy tale. Let me explain before the mom-and-apple-pie police knock down my door. Independence is generally a good thing, something we hope our children acquire as they grow up. We prize independent thinkers who follow their own paths regardless of mainstream thought. Applause is due those people who overcome tough odds to flourish in life.
It is not merely a matter of semantics to distinguish between independence and complete self-reliance. I suffered from the delusion that total self-reliance was possible, and I was somehow falling short of this mythical goal. It took a few months of working with a life coach (yes, coaches have coaches) ten years ago for me to learn this lesson. It was one of the most liberating moments of my life, and I want to share with you the most important exercise she assigned to me. Let's call it the "Track Back" exercise. I'm sure there is an official name for it, and I believe it derives from an Eastern belief system, but I like my name, and it's my blog.
Track Back Exercise:
1. Pause wherever you are and select an object in your line of vision that belongs to you. It may be something you created, but more likely, it will be something you purchased. That we bought something with our own money makes us feel independent, and dare I say, self-reliant.
2. Think about all the components, or materials, that make up this object.
3. Trace back each component to its source, and consider all the steps taken between the source of each material and the object you purchased. Focus on how many people were involved in each step.
4. If you are doing this exercise correctly, it will be difficult to finish it.
Example: I focused on my living room sofa. The sofa is comprised of fabric, wood, foam and steel. I started with fabric. My sofa is covered in cotton, which had to be grown somewhere in the world by a cotton farmer. This farmer has farm tools she needs to prepare the soil, grow and harvest the crop. What are those tools made out of? Probably metal and wood. Where did the metal and wood come from? The metal was mined and the wood came from trees. Some hardworking miners brought the ore to the surface of the earth via an elevator. Who built the elevator? What materials were used in creating the elevator? Now let's go back to the wood needed to make the farm implements. Who grew the trees? What tools were used? Then there are the roads created for the vehicles carrying the ore and wood. What equipment was needed to clear the land for the roads? What about the materials used to lay the road? Etc., etc., etc.
The first time I did this exercise I, literally, got a headache. It reminded me of the bedtime fifteen years ago when my then seven-year-old daughter, Danielle, was lying in bed one night and told me it hurt her brain to think about the end of the universe. That's exactly how I felt when I tried to trace back all the people involved in the making of my couch. Just as Danielle felt so tiny in the unending universe, I felt like a speck in the long line of people responsible for my couch even existing. The act of purchasing my sofa meant I had the financial means to do so, and nothing more. I learned that I had to rely on many thousands of people for my sofa. So much for thinking I was totally and unequivocally self-reliant!
The truth is we are all interdependent, and that's a good thing. Being interdependent does not negate or diminish our hard work in creating a productive life. Bravo to people who went from poverty to acquire an education and a prosperous career. I am proud of putting myself through college and graduate school. However, I credit my parents for instilling in me a "can do" attitude, for demonstrating every day the value of hard work, and loving me unconditionally, thereby freeing me emotionally to take risks. I paid for my education, but they laid the groundwork.
When you truly feel this sense of interdependence, and I mean feel it in your bones, then you automatically shed this irrational and unhealthy pursuit of the mythic self-reliance. In so doing, you feel connected to all other people, most of whom you will never meet. You will begin to relax and accept yourself for the non-super person you are. Congratulations, and welcome to the real human race.