The Myth of Self-Reliance

victorian-wheelchairAnnE continues her fabulous guest stint at By Common Consent.

I have tried continually to get this people to pursue a course that will make them self-sustaining, taking care of their poor—the lame, the halt and the blind, lifting the ignorant from where they have no opportunity of observing the ways of the world, and of understanding the common knowledge possessed among the children of men, bringing them together from the four quarters of the world, and making of them an intelligent, thrifty and self-sustaining people.” (Brigham Young 6 Apr 1868 JD 12:195)

At the close of overland emigration, Brigham Young reminded the survivors comfortably gathered in the new Tabernacle it was time to graduate from a scrappy interdependence to a covenant community. In self-reliance they had packed individual wagons; in self-preservation companies banded and braced against the journey; the prologue was over. To circumscribe the breadth of a Zion worthy of exaltation, the saintly challenge is what Young called becoming “self-sustaining”, or creating a lasting and corporate abundance in the soul, heart and hand.

We Mormons can triage the heck out of acute suffering–from acres of Cream of Gilead casserole to a yellow-besmocked human chain that really makes a photo-op pop. We’re famous for out-donating and out-serving most other well-meaning people in more scheduled ways too. For my money, operationalizing charity with professional efficiency and earnest caring is an outward testimony of the Lord’s people.

I offer this as a personal indictment. I tend to spend the bulk of my personal ministry serving dead people, because they are more grateful and less weird than the living. I am hopeful that as I mature, I will learn to own Zion in the aggregate as Brigham suggested. When he plead with the Saints to enlarge their borders to give place to those who remained marginalized, the final bowery had been dismantled, and a new sacred dome stretched over their heads. Now no longer an encampment, perhaps Israel felt once again anchored to a center place, however far-flung the outposts seemed to those still marooned in the periphery.

As the forty-year march to the Salt Lake Temple continued in place, the self-reliance perfected on the trek was multiplied in the survivalist and communal work of settling the land. The first decades of the Restoration receded into received history for the rising generation and growing immigrant population who knew not Bishop Newel K. Whitney, the Church’s first steward. He never lived to see any of the construction on Temple Block, but perhaps decades earlier when he and his wife Elizabeth decided to dispense with bootstraps and fling open the storehouse doors, it created the catalyst for the Kirtland Pentacost:

“Saturday, 9.–Thus saith the voice of the Spirit to me, if thy brother Joseph Smith, junior, will attend the feast at thy house this day (at 12 o’clock) the poor and the lame will rejoice at his presence, and also think themselves honored. ¶ Yours in friendship and love.¶ Newel K. Whitney ¶ Jan. 9, 1836.¶ I dismissed the school in order to attend to this polite invitation, with my wife, father, and mother. A large congregation assembled; a number were blessed under the hands of father Smith, and we had a good time.” (DHC 2:363; see JSP)

Elizabeth’s autobiography explains the motivation: “According to our Savior’s pattern and agreeably to the Prophet Joseph’s and our own ideas of true charity and disinterested benevolence, we were determined to make a Feast for the Poor, such as we knew could not return the same to us; the lame, the halt, the deaf, the blind, the aged and infirm.” (serialized in Woman’s Exponent 1 Oct 1878 p. 71) During this three-day recasting of the typical transactional welfare the Whitneys normally oversaw, Joseph, Sidney Rigdon and Frederick G. Williams were out among those who likely did not enjoy access to these brethren during their regular ministries. Father Smith circulated the crowd as well giving blessings, but there was no log of miracle healings. The guests were neither chastised for dependency or entitlement, nor spontaneously transformed into something more convenient for the benefactors. Unfortunately, the history of disability within the LDS tradition that these beneficiaries’ differences and contributions were not embraced either. However, this event seemed just enough to validate their place in the kingdom as best a 19th-century congregation could, and minimally heal the community as a whole.

Sister Whitney continues, “The Prophet Joseph often referred to this particular Feast during his lifetime, and testified of the great blessing he felt in associating with the meek and humble ones whom the Lord has said ‘He delights to own and bless’. He often said to me that it was proferable and far superior to the elegant and select parties he afterwards attended, and afforded him much more genuine satisfaction; and to me it was “a feast of fat things indeed; a season of rejoicing never to be forgotten.” (Woman’s Exponent 1 Nov 1878 p. 83) To be sure, unexamined platitudes of specialness and God’s favor are intended to comfort the person repeating them, and an intermittent charity Jubilee cannot wipe the slate clean for a season of neglect to follow. But once everyone had entered in, another feast was had in Kirtland eleven weeks later that I remain convinced could not have been enacted without the first.

So these provisions both literal and abstracted which I am carefully hoarding and have balanced an imaginary shotgun atop–as it were like an actual ax at the root of a doomed tree–they’re not for me. Whether on the longer haul of helping someone do for themselves, or the short-run satisfaction of outright sharing, the providently stocked wagon of an individuated self-reliance is not the endgame of Zion–it is a consecrated vehicle for me to be reconciled with the Saints so that we arrive there together.

Comments

  1. I love your wit, even when talking about something so foundational to who we are. The last paragraph is simply brilliant and so very beautiful.

  2. fling open the storehouse doors, it created the catalyst for the Kirtland Pentacost…Joseph, Sidney Rigdon and Frederick G. Williams were out among those who likely did not enjoy access to these brethren during their regular ministries…The guests were neither chastised for dependency or entitlement… Great advice here!

  3. Thanks for this post.

    A bit tangential, perhaps, but related:

    I believe one of the biggest problems with unnecessary and excessive debt is that it robs us of the ability to help the poorer among us who would benefit greatly from our sharing with them by forcing us to give what we pay in interest to those who are doing OK without it. In that way, we contribute to grinding the faces of the poor, and, in many cases, we place ourselves in that category and, as a result, place an extra demand on others to care for us.

    I believe in financial self-reliance to the extent possible – but only, as this post says, as a means of losing that self-reliance in the establishment of Zion.

  4. great post… it reminds me of the local ‘survivalist’ hobbyists who wrap themselves in early revelations and insist that they store weapons along with their food while turning a blind eye to the inner conflict of being prepared to kill their wanting neighbor(s).

  5. Thank you for sharing this, what a wonderful story! Our traditional/cultural ideas about “Self-Reliance” are a tricky thing, especially with all of the communal implications in the Law of Consecration. My job is to help out of work people find jobs. It can be both challenging and rewarding work. I believe strongly in the ideas that the Church teaches about welfare, but there is far more to the idea of people being “self-reliant” then just getting them to “work harder.” I really have come to believe in this quote by Dr. King, “It is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he should lift himself by his own bootstraps. It is even worse to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps when somebody is standing on the boot.” There are all sorts of forces at work that effect our ability to be “self reliant” the myth of “people just need to work harder” and they will become rich or even middle class is just that, a myth.

    I love what this post and Ray@#3 said, ” I believe in financial self-reliance to the extent possible – but only, as this post says, as a means of losing that self-reliance in the establishment of Zion.” The best “Self Reliance” comes when we work together for the greater good. Thanks again!

  6. Great post and comments. I particularly love the MLK quote. Thanks, Andrew (5).

    I sometimes wonder if self-reliance, while a worthy goal on a personal and family level, is perhaps better understood on a community level. A self-reliant ward, for instance, would be a ward in which fast offering contributions consistently met or exceeded the need for welfare in that ward. This type of “community self-reliance” is more sustainable because it can adapt to fluctuating individual circumstances. I literally don’t know anyone in my real life circle who hasn’t experienced periods of feast and famine throughout their lives, but it’s unlikely that all 500 (?) members of a ward would be experiencing the same situation simultaneously. For this reason I wonder if a community can be more self-reliant than an individual.

  7. Ann, this post reminds me of an excerpt from the Tao Che:

    I have Three Treasures,
    Which I hold fast and watch over closely.
    The first is Mercy.
    The second is Frugality.
    The third is Daring to Be Not First in the World.
    Because I am merciful,
    I can be brave.
    Because I am frugal,
    I can be generous.
    Because I dare not to be first,
    I can lead.

    A friend and I have often discussed the “Myth of Self Reliance,” but never as eloquently as you have here. Thank you.

  8. “The guests were neither chastised for dependency or entitlement, nor spontaneously transformed into something more convenient for the benefactors.” Loved this, loved the pithy little bits … “dispense with bootstraps and fling open the storehouse doors” … “a consecrated vehicle for me to be reconciled with the Saints so that we arrive there together” … just lovely. Thanks.

  9. Self-reliance is a lofty and good goal. However, this ideal will never be possible for everyone to reach. It is beautiful to see people help people become more self-reliant.

  10. crazywomancreek says:

    I agree with Tracy, that is a cracking final paragraph. And it it just me or would: < weird > grateful make an awesome slogan for the family history library? Put that on a tote and I’d buy it.

  11. I enjoyed your turn of phrase in describing this little outburst of charity. It also reminded me that after my husband and I saw “Contagion”, we decided instead of the wholly implausible year’s worth of food storage what we really needed was a gun and a ward list–and to cultivate a Jack Mormon persona such that no one would suspect us to be doomsday hoarders. We’ve procured a ward list now, so that’s a start.

  12. @5 andrew h: thanks for what you said, right on! There are people who through no fault of their own find themselves in circumstances out of their control which bring them down financially, and it is hard to dig out from it. It has happened to me and my family. We are working our behinds off but at the same time spinning our wheels. No sooner do we see a glimmer of light something else happens, and it hurts financially and emotionally. It is tiring and discouraging. And our health suffers as well which adds to the problem.

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