Self-Reliance Paradox

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Those of us experiencing a spate of un- or underemployment these days are likely to discover an underappreciated fact of life. The feeling of self-sufficiency is less self-generated than people think. Paradoxically, we get our exhilarating sense of stand-alone independence when we're so reliably enmeshed in a community of supporters that we can afford to ignore their support. Like the little boy who, full of beans, decides to run away from home because "who needs parents?" people are most likely to think they don't need anyone when they're most reliably supported.

Employed, we feel needed, not needy. Less employed, we're forced to feel our neediness. We scrounge for our sense of belonging, catch as catch can, working out of coffee shops, checking our Facebook pages too often. Paradoxically, because we're more independent, we feel less independent. We're like nomads, not knowing where our next community-sponsored feeling of complete independence will come from.

The Billie Holliday song says "God bless the child who can stand up and say "I've got my own." But paradoxically the ones who can say it most proudly are the ones who get their own by relying on a strong and supportive community.

These days, the people proclaiming "I've got my own" most proudly are this new breed of wealthy libertarians, self-proclaimed Atlases, full of beans, shrugging "who needs government?" and running from responsibility for the society that made their wealth possible: Internet millionaires who conveniently ignore the Internet's origins as a government project, media moguls like Rupert Murdoch whose Fox network relies on government-granted use of our airwaves, Tea Party candidates bemoaning, yet taking government handouts, and Wall Street bankers who blame government for not leaving them alone while living off taxpayer bailouts.

The self-sufficiency paradox cuts both ways -- dividing our nation into swaggering haves and struggling have-nots.


With a Perspective, I'm Jeremy Sherman.