Self-Reliance I

My uncle and I had a short discussion about the Bildungsroman the other day, a genre of novel that focuses on the moral and psychological development of its main character. It is what we might call a “coming of age story,” where the protagonist matures to find his place in society. Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister is the prototypical example of this genre as is its descendent Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. These stories provide useful guidelines and currents of inspiration for anyone who is desirous of coming into his own.

There are many forces at work which conspire to prevent the individual from realizing his full potential. These forces notwithstanding, there are many tendencies within the individual himself which, like weeds in a garden, lead to a tangled mess if handled improperly. Coming into one’s own is not a sure bet, for potential must be consistently and repeatedly translated into action, many times against all odds.

The character qualities of self-confidence and self-reliance can go a long way to overcoming the many obstacles to a complete transition from childhood to adulthood. Each one must live his own life and coming to that realization is paramount to successfully navigating the transition. William George Jordan provided an excellent framework for the importance and cultivation of self-reliance in the individual in his book “The Majesty of Calmness”:

Self-confidence, without self-reliance, is as useless as a cooking recipe,―without food. Self-confidence sees the possibilities of the individual; self-reliance realizes them. Self-confidence sees the angel in the unhewn
block of marble; self-reliance carves it out for himself.

The man who is self-reliant says ever: ‘No one can realize my possibilities for me, but me; no one can make me good or evil but myself.’ He works out his own salvation,―financially, socially, mentally, physically, and morally. Life is an individual problem that man must solve for himself. Nature accepts no vicarious sacrifice, no vicarious service. Nature never recognizes a proxy vote. She has nothing to do with middle-men,―she deals only with the individual. Nature is constantly seeking to show man that he is his own best friend, or his own worst enemy. Nature gives man the option on which he will be to himself.

All the athletic exercises in the world are of no value to the individual unless he compel those bars and dumb-bells to yield to him, in strength and muscle, the power for which he, himself, pays in time and effort. He can never develop his muscles by sending his valet to a gymnasium.

The medicine-chests of the world are powerless, in all the united efforts, to help the individual until he reach out and take for himself what is needed for his individual weakness.

All the religions of the world are but speculations in morals, mere theories of salvation, until the individual realize that he must save himself by relying on the law of truth, as he sees it, and living his life in harmony with it, as fully as he can. But religion is not a Pullman car, with soft-cushioned seats, where he has but to pay for his ticket,―and someone else does all the rest. In religion, as in all other great things, he is ever thrown back on his self-reliance. He should accept all helps, but,―he must live his own life. He should not feel that he is a mere passenger; he is the engineer, and the train is his life. We must rely on ourselves, live our own lives, or we merely drift through existence,―losing all that is best, all that is greatest, all that is divine.

All that others can do for us is to give us opportunity. We must ever be prepared for the opportunity when it comes, and to go after it and find it when it does not come, or that opportunity is to us,―nothing. Life is but a succession of opportunities. They are for good or evil,―as we make them.

We certainly need one another, but the individual must come to terms with his own participation if the synergies of the whole are to be realized in full. If the number of immature, self-centered and dependent adults outweigh those who have come into their own, who have embraced a magnanimous spirit of serve and who have grown into a state of self-reliance, a society, family, company or group is no longer tenable. The quality of the parts determines the integrity of the whole and unfortunately, there are no shortcuts.