Understanding and Forgiving

It is popular today to have strong opinions about the shortcomings and moral failures of other people. Democrats will gobble up news about the crazy things our president does and says, people who work will be quick to call out the laziness in others, and it is easy to condemn the greed and excesses of billionaires. I would argue, however, these criticisms speak more about ourselves than the people whose supposed wrongs we are railing against.

 

Being critical is easy, and it props us up by showing how far beneath ourselves we find another person to be. It is easy for us to say how terrible another person’s actions and thoughts are while we are not in that person’s shoes, and it creates and easy space for us to feel good about ourselves for not having the vices we see in others. What this meaningless venting misses, however, is that we live in a society where the drivers, decisions, and behaviors of everyone is interconnected.

 

I like to remind myself that no one succeeds or fails on their own. Consider a student as an example. In order to be a great student you need to have a healthy space in which to do your studies. Things that would make that space livable and easy to do studying in might be things like loving parents, a desk, a heater for the cold months, and sufficient lighting for you to do your work. You did not discover the light bulb or the electricity that runs it, you did not pay for the energy to run the heater, and you didn’t purchase the house within which you studied. You may have put in the hard work necessary to be a successful student, but you depended on parents who could provide the structure and environment for you. Even if you were missing those things, and did your work at a library, you similarly were dependent on others for your success. Lacking these things, and being a failure, was similarly not your fault. You could not chose to be born in a situation where you would lack encouragement, electricity, or a safe place to do work.

 

When I think about how dependent we are on others for even the most basic parts of life, such as commuting on roads we did not build to school or work, I am reminded of how important it is that we think beyond individuals when we want to criticize someone for their behavior. When we see someone who is lazy, we should ask what was missing in their life that did not properly encourage them to be the best version of themselves? When we see someone who is needlessly greedy, we should ask, how did society let this person down so that they came to see having more money or power than anyone else as being the most important thing for them to pursue? And when I see someone who directly harms others, I want to ask, where did society fail to help this person value relationships and value the interconnectedness which we all share? Just as we cannot claim 100% responsibility for our most incredible successes and must attribute something to the community when we succeed, we must do so with the failures of ourselves and the individuals we see around us. To simply criticize is to the ignore the role of society, which we are a part of. To end the negative we see around us, we must give more of ourselves to our community and work harder to ensure that what has made us a good person or a success as we define it, is there for everyone. (I know there are some people who are exceptions to the examples I gave above, but they are likely not the majority.)

 

As Dale Carnegie wrote in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, “Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain, and most fools do. But it takes character and self-control to be understanding and forgiving.”

Returning to Self Sufficiency

I’m not sure what it is that makes us want to do things on our own and show that we are independent and strong. Perhaps we have a drive to escape from the dependence of our families and parents to show that we are no longer helpless children, and that we can survive independent from the structures that raised us. I’d imagine some of us have this feeling more strongly than others, something that our ancestors might have needed from some members of society when we lived in small tribes. At that time, for humanity to survive and grow, we needed brave individuals who could venture out on their own to find new resources.

 

I’m a middle child, and perhaps for me, part of my feeling of independence comes from my upbringing as a middle child, receiving less attention than my older sister and younger brother. I feel a strong pull to show that I can do things on my own, that I don’t need to rely on help from others to complete an assignment at work, to hike a new trail, or to find my way in a new city. But the reality for me, and for all of us who feel a strong drive toward independence, is that we are hopelessly, hilariously dependent on others for everything we do. But this dependence on others and on society does not mean that we cannot still be self-sufficient.  Recognizing that we can be both dependent on others and self-sufficient can take away a lot of stress and help us have more healthy relationships with the people around us.

 

In Letters From a Stoic Seneca writes, “As long as he is allowed to order his affairs according to his judgment, he is self-sufficient-and marries a wife; he is self-sufficient-and brings up children; he is self-sufficient-and yet could not live if he had to live without the society of man.” We cannot necessarily order all of our affairs as we would like, but we can always do our best to order the thoughts within our mind in a way that will allow us to be self-sufficient. Even at our best and our most independent moment, we still rely on the structures around us and we dependent on our society to allow us to be self-sufficient.

 

It is important to recognize how much we rely and depend on others, and it is also important to think about what it means to be self-sufficient and independent at any given time. When we lived in small tribes, we were still dependent on others to bring offspring into the world and raise them to continue humanity. As humans evolved, our levels of dependence have changed and today we depend on our society for everything from keeping our homes warm, to having clean water, to being entertained on the weekends. Seneca’s quote tells us that it is ok to rely on others in this way, but that we should learn to be independent of a sense of need of many of the things we come to rely on. Without being distant and disengaged, we should take full advantage of the society we rely on, and yet understand that our relationship with the thing could change, and we could still survive without at least some aspect. Enjoy what you have, but don’t be reliant on it for complete happiness.

Self Sufficient

Ever since Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler’s book The Elephant in the Brain came out I have been seeing the world, especially the world of politics, through a Hansonian framework. Our big evolutionary drive is to ensure that our genes are passed on to the next generation and for a social species that evolved in groups and communities, that means that we try to obtain ever greater status to ensure that we can pass more of our genes to future generations and then ensure that our progeny are successful, have supportive allies, and can further pass along their genes.

 

This mental framework has made me particularly sensitive to people’s attempts to improve their status in the eyes of others. I am in my late 20’s and I have a lot of friends on social media who seem concerned with telling people that they are self-sufficient. Many of my friends seem to want everyone to know that they have worked hard for the thing that they have, and have not had to rely on hand-outs from either government or from their parents. There seems to be this urge to let everyone know how capable we can be, and I suspect that what my friends are really doing is signaling their skills and abilities and attempting to increase their social status by suggesting that they have good judgment, an industrious nature, and have achieved their level of wealth through their own abilities.

 

Self-sufficiency in this view is all about how valuable one appears. Politically it is expedient to say that everyone should be self-sufficient, that we should all be able to provide for ourselves without relying on the assistance of others. My fear, however, is that self-sufficiency is really just acting on the central themes identified by Hanson and Simler. If we have achieved a certain level of success, we will look even better if we can tell other people that we became successful on our own, without help from others. We will look impressive if we have achieved something difficult that other people can’t seem to do without lots of help and advantages from birth. The typical idea of self-sufficiency, it appears, is really not about being self-sufficient, but about making ourselves look good to boost our social status.

 

Seneca offers us an alternative idea regarding self-sufficiency in Letters from a Stoic. In one of his letters he writes, “The wise man is self-sufficient. This phrase, my dear Lucilius, is incorrectly explained by many; for they withdraw the wise man from the world, and force him to dwell within his own skin. But we must mark with care what this sentence signifies and how far it applies; the wise man is sufficient unto himself for a happy existence, but not for mere existence. For he needs many helps toward mere existence; but for a happy existence he needs only a sound and upright soul, one that despises fortune.”

 

My social media friends, talking about their own self-sufficiency in purchasing a home, landscaping a yard, or getting through college are not thinking of self-sufficiency in terms of happiness. Nor are they recognizing just what they need from others in order to be able to do something sufficiently on their own. None of my friends are subsistence farmers, cultivating all the food that they consume. None of my friends walked out of a box into the world to discover how to act and succeed in our society – they all had good luck in the form of parents or teachers or friends or mentors to give them advice and serve as models for success. And all of my friends relied on public infrastructure, roads, water systems, telecommunications networks to build their own success. There was a certain amount of hard work, good decision making, and avoiding harmful vices or wasteful uses of resources that undoubtedly contributed to the success of my self-sufficient friends, but every one of them benefited enormously from a huge number of factors that came before them and that they had no part of.

 

As Seneca writes, our happiness and our responses to the world are the only things where we can expect to find true self-sufficiency. For the rest of the world, unless we want to survive by subsistence farming with no help from others, we will never be entirely self-sufficient, at least, not in the way we seem to imply on social media.