Pursue some path, however narrow and crooked, in which you can walk with love and reverence. Wherever a man separates from the multitude and goes his own way, there is a fork in the road, though the travelers along the highway see only a gap in the paling.
Henry David Thoreau
Journal, 18 October 1855
Wallace Stegner in his collection of essays, Marking The Sparrow's Fall, writes on American self-reliance.
"Henry David Thoreau was a philosopher not unwilling to criticize his country and his countrymen, but when he wrote the essay entitled 'Walking' in 1862 ... He spoke America's stoutest self-confidence and most optimistic expectations. ...
(Christopher Lasch in The Culture of Narcissism) reports 'a way of life that is dying - the culture of competitive individualism, which in its decadence has carried the logic of individualism to the extreme of a way of all against all, the pursuit of happiness to the dead end of a narcissistic preoccupation with the self.' ...
Assuming that Thoreau spoke for his time ... and that Christopher Lasch speaks for at least elements and aspects of his, how did we get from there to here in little more than a century? Have the sturdiness of the American character and the faith in America's destiny that Thoreau took for granted been eroded entirely away? What happened to confidence, what happened to high purpose, what happened to hope? Are they gone ... ?"
The American virtue of self-reliance sounds archaic compared to the modern conventions of self-improvement and self-help. The difference is worth noting.
We think, possibly, that Thoreau's time was much simpler, and being self-reliant was easier to achieve. Today, everything is so complex. We may wonder whether being self-reliant is possible?
Self-reliance today as compared to Thoreau's day is quite different. As the world has become increasingly complex, to think that we can do all that we need to do on own is a recipe for frustration and aggravation. Unlike in Thoreau's day, today, we interface with so many organizational structures. Independence as described by Wallace Stegner is no longer really possible. As a result, self-reliance has to be understood in the context of living and working in organizations. There we must related to a widely diverse set of people. Self-reliance and people skills go hand in hand today.
Self-reliance is not narcissistic self-centeredness. It is rather the ability to know that we can walk into any situation and know that we can figure out how to function well in it, making a difference that matters because of who we are and what we desire.
My series of blog posts Situational Awareness gets at this reality.
Situational awareness is a skill of insight, anticipation, and respect for personal boundaries in social and organizational contexts.
It is the skill of perceiving reality as it is, not as we want it to be, or how others see it, but as it is.
Situational awareness is knowing how to be yourself regardless of the context you are in.
This is a core skill of self-reliance.
The Horizon of Self-reliance is not independence but freedom. Our freedom to adapt to situations, to connect with people in meaningful ways, and, to take initiative to make a difference that matters.
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